Star Wars: Episode I,
The Phantom Menace

20th Century Fox/LucasFilm, 1999

A Response to Critics

It is clear to me now that the
Republic no longer functions.

Queen Amidala

The Friday, May 21, 1999, Daily Variety contained an article about the critical reactions to Star Wars, Episode I, The Phantom Menace ["The 'Phantom' Crix, Many are naysayers, but some stick up for pic" p. 35]. Among other things, the article says:

Almost unanimous in what they deem the film's high points -- riveting action sequences and sprawling effects-laden alien vistas -- critics also agree on its weaknesses: wooden actors, murky plotlines and lack of emotional pull...

In her Washington Post review, Rita Kempley warned that "even die-hard fans of the heretofore awe-inspiring saga are bound to be disappointed with this joyless, overly reverential, and impenetrably plotted prequel."

The L.A. Times' Kenneth Turan declared, "Even without the pre-release hoopla, 'The Phantom Menace' would be a considerable letdown," and while he called the film "serviceable," he said it's "noticeably lacking in warmth and humor."

Variety's own review was also pretty sour: is neither captivating nor transporting, for it lacks any emotional pull, as well as the sense of wonder and awe that marks the best works of sci-fi/fantasy...

...repeat viewing, which will no doubt be frequent among kids but much less so with adults. In other words, though it's an automatic blockbuster, it will become neither a classic nor the biggest money maker of all time... [Monday, May 10, 1999, p. 1]

None of these "weaknesses" exists. Whether or not it surpasses Titanic at the boxoffice -- breaking $400,000,000 by the end of July [1999], it is right behind Titanic in original release box office -- The Phantom Menace is a splendid, triumphant, inspiring movie, both for kids and for adults. It certainly is a classic, like its three predecessors. But then I've only seen it fourteen times (as of 7/15/99, including once in digital projection at the Pacific Winnetka Stadium 21 in Chatsworth).

None of the above reviews, however, matches the nastiness and incoherence of Louis Menand's review, "Billion-Dollar Baby," in The New York Review of Books of June 24, 1999. Whatever Menand's skills as a City University of New York (CUNY) English professor, his envy and sour grapes seem to have blocked all genuinely critical faculties, as we shall see.

If Todd McCarthy at Daily Variety did not think that The Phantom Menace was captivating, transporting, or awesome, it is mysterious what movie he was watching. And if he thought it did not have any emotional pull, he wasn't, at least, paying attention. Personally, it is the first movie since Titanic to move me to tears -- over the death of Qui-gon. But I must be a sentimentalist, since I also recently found The Sixth Sense just as moving.

Liam Neeson (Qui-gon Jinn), Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala), and Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker) are perfect and convincing in their roles. Neeson is what we always needed to see about a mature, functioning Jedi, going about the business of defending peace and justice [note]. He does it most convincingly, right from the beginning, as we might expect from the man responsible for the portrayal of Oscar Schindler. We see quite a bit more of Neeson in Phantom than we did of Alec Guiness in the original Star Wars. Qui-gon is basically present and in charge of most of the action for most of the movie. We become familiar with him in many circumstances and come to know him as a tall, commanding, confident, and noble but also fatherly figure (note the graying hair). Perhaps after many years of Homer Simpson, Ed Bundy, and contempt for the 50's ethos of Father Knows Best, it is hard for critics to recognize a real father figure again. This is no buffed up Rambo and certainly no "wooden character," nor, as McCarthy says, "a basically stolid guy with only moderate charisma." No way. At key moments Qui-gon is even notable for his affection:  touching on the shoulder with concern and protection Anakin's mother (caressing with his thumb), Anakin (with both hands, twice), and Padme (during the pod race), and in the end, while dying, lovingly touching the cheek of Obi-Wan. In our day, we might even be afraid to show such affection for fear of being accused of (1) sexual harassment, (2) child molestation, or (3) being gay. Qui-gon's death at the climax of the film is stunning and moving, the loss of a father figure for both Obi-Wan and Anakin. He is the first person killed in a sword fight, against his will, in a Star Wars movie -- Obi-Wan, as all will remember, allowed himself to be killed by Darth Vader. (Luke lays about with his light saber, especially against Jabba the Hutt, but never kills anyone in a sword-to-sword fight.) This is the frightening nadir of the fortunes of good in Phantom. Obi-Wan, obviously agitated, with feelings we have no difficulty understanding, dramatically rises to the occasion, killing Darth Maul in turn, with about the most decisive sword strike imaginable. Thus, the "battle of the fates," as the sound track calls it, begins with three and ends with only one. We have not seen anything like this in other Star Wars movies, and the sword fight itself is probably one of the greatest in the history of cinema, hard on the heels of the great fight between Luke and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

Louis Menand's thesis is that in the original Star Wars series the relationship between Luke and Han "make those first three movies essentially what Hollywood calls 'buddy pictures'." This is nonsense. "Buddies" in "buddy pictures" are peers who hang out together and do things. Luke and Han are not even friends before the end of Star Wars, and they are not even together for the entire length of The Empire Strikes Back after Han saves Luke from the cold at the beginning. This does not make for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Menand himself inadvertently puts his finger on the problem, referring to the "earnest young whiner Luke Skywalker." Luke is no peer for the experienced and cynical Han Solo. He is a teenager. What he needs is a father.

This, indeed, is the theme of the Star Wars movies: fatherhood. Luke's foster father, "Uncle Owen," is totally worthless as a real father for Luke: he cannot even protect himself from becoming the only grisly, horror-movie-like corpse shown in the entire epic. Meanwhile, however, Luke has found a true father figure, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who immediately bestows on him his paternal inheritance:  the light saber of a Jedi. While Obi-Wan gets Luke started, his status is not permanent. Losing him, Luke gains another father figure in The Empire Strikes Back in Yoda. This is then complicated by the confrontation with and revelation of his real father, Darth Vader. Surviving that, The Return of the Jedi soon dispenses with Yoda. Why? This does not seem dramatically very necessary. But it is, for Yoda was never more than a father substitute. The task of Jedi is to restore Luke's true father, which is what happens. Darth Vader is redeemed by the love of Luke, kills the Emperor, and is transported to the same plane as Obi-Wan and Yoda. Luke, now fully mature, can see at the end all his fathers (except the luckless Uncle Owen).

This is the force of Qui-gon's character in The Phantom Menace:  He is a true, albeit spiritual, father in the full, confident exercise of his powers at their height. Obi-Wan is not, as Menand says, Qui-gon's "side-kick," but his apprentice. Menand complains that the movie "most glaringly omits" friendship, but he doesn't seem to notice the regard and affection that Qui-gon and Obi-Wan have for each other, or of Anakin and his mother for each other -- something rather more than friendship -- or the actual friendship that springs up between Anakin and Padme. But this is not all: Anakin does not have a father at all, and Qui-gon and Obi-Wan become, in turn, fathers for him. This picks up the search-for-fatherhood theme in the first three movies, as the death of Qui-gon echoes the deaths of Obi-Wan and Yoda. So it is hopeless looking for Butch Cassidy in Qui-gon. He is, indeed, far more like the Robert Young of Father Knows Best (a "stolid" fellow, to be sure). In his eagerness to dismiss Star Wars as "entertainment for eight-year-old boys," and little more than a license to print money for George Lucas, Menand applies a Hollywood cookie-cutter ("buddy movies") and overlooks the powerful, consistent theme of all four movies [note].

Before moving on, I might ask:  Does Qui-gon "know best"? Did he do the right thing? After the Jedi Council refuses to train Anakin or allow Qui-gon to train him, Obi-Wan says to him, "They all sense that he is dangerous, why can't you?" Qui-gon then flatly says that he is not dangerous. We seem to know better, since we know that Anakin will become Darth Vader. We already have a sense that Obi-Wan can see things that Qui-gon cannot, since Obi-Wan's very first line in the movie -- a familiar one from the previous films -- is, "I have a bad feeling about this." Qui-gon senses nothing of the sort. We thus might think that Qui-gon is simply deficient in his clairvoyance and consequently makes a catastrophic mistake when it comes to Anakin. On the other hand, Qui-gon is substantially responsible for the victory of good in Phantom. Because Qui-gon takes the trouble to free Jar Jar Binks from the Gungans, despite Obi-Wan's objection, a connection to the Gungans is established that later is exploited by the Queen, bringing the Gungans into the conflict. Qui-gon's rationale for this at the time is that Jar Jar would be valuable as a navigator, but then he tells Jar Jar himself that the Force will guide them through the planet core. Qui-gon can only have sensed some other need for Jar Jar. Even on Tatooine, Obi-Wan is still thinking of Jar Jar as a "pathetic life form," putting Anakin in that category also. Qui-gon corrects, if not rebukes, him for that, and, as it happens, it is Anakin alone who is later able to destroy the Federation battleship and render the Federation 'droid army useless. Whatever happens to Anakin in the future, he is essential to the success of the action, on both Tatooine and Naboo, in Phantom. So, it seems, Qui-gon does see some things that Obi-Wan and others cannot in Phantom. So what goes wrong in the future? In Jedi, Obi-Wan blames himself for what happens to Anakin. Exactly what happens remains to be seen. Anakin is eventually the one, it must be remembered, who is able to kill the Emperor. Qui-gon, in that respect, was ultimately right. Whether that could have been done more promptly and with less grief (like the destruction of Aldaran) is a question that can only answered in terms of the next movies.

What may confuse some critics about Natalie Portman is the majestas of her character as Queen Amidala, numinous and commensurate with the incredible, kabuki-like costumes she gets to wear (which some seem to think are ridiculous, having, I supposed, missed Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love [note]). McCarthy dismisses her lines as "pained pronouncements," but they are in tone and content entirely appropriate to her position, responsibility, and determination. Portman has said that the costumes almost made her become the character. She does it perfectly, and the movie really depends on her, since the payoff results from her assertion, initiative, and decisiveness. Queen Amidala, to put it without overstatement, saves the day. She makes the crucial decision to abandon reliance on the Republic and the Senate and to go to war; and when no one else can imagine what she can do, she has learned from Jar Jar Binks (or just been reminded) that there is an unexpected army she can appeal to for help. She surprises the underestimations of Lord Sidious, the ultimate "Phantom Menace" (who is never revealed to the protagonists in this film). Amidala's character compares favorably with Queen Elizabeth in the recent Elizabeth [1998]. It takes some time for Elizabeth to find confidence and command ("I am my father's daughter"), and all she ends up doing with it is to accept advice, resulting in the Godfather-like ending of that movie. On the other hand, Amidala is confident and commanding from the beginning; and, although at first she just accepts the good advice of Qui-gon, it is she alone later who makes the crucial decisions. Her willingness to follow Qui-gon's judgment is reminiscent of Machiavelli's maxim, "A prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely counseled." Amidala displays nothing but wisdom. Confucius says (Analects XII:11), "Let the ruler be a ruler." This is Amidala. At the same time, we also see her without the majestas, when she is incognito as her "handmaiden" Padme. We get to know her both as Queen and as an ordinary person -- the two only really come together in the last scene, when Padme's smile finally lights up Amidala's face. That supplies some more of the conspicuous warmth in the movie, since she takes to the boy Anakin and later tries to comfort him for the loss of his mother. McCarthy calls this "a few moments," but it actually is a feature of several scenes (he must have been out buying popcorn). This sisterly affection, as we know, later becomes more serious, since Amidala and Anakin are going to be the parents of Luke and Leia in the later Star Wars stories. At the same time, it puts Amidala in a further favorable light that, although Padme complains more than once about Qui-gon's actions on Tatooine, she maintains discipline and does not blow her cover, revealing that she really is the Queen, to try and command Qui-gon. It is hard to imagine most monarchs, or anyone accustomed to command and obedience, to so restrain themselves. Note that Amidala is also a good shot, personally dropping three androids during the shootout in her throne room.

Jake Lloyd's Anakin, although dismissed by McCarthy as "a pretty standard-issue tyke hero," also does a perfect job of getting the character right. Anakin is a good kid. He is smart and says so, but he does not come off as a smart-aleck. He is not the "standard-issue" wise cracking kid. A revealing moment is when he is nearly run over by Darth Maul and Qui-gon shouts to him, "Anakin, drop!" and the boy, without a question or a wise crack, simply does so. He does not want to leave his mother, and much later tells Qui-gon that he doesn't want to be "a problem." This does not make for the kind of irritating or insolent child that has become all too familiar from recent movies, but for a very sympathetic boy, whom we can well imagine as a worthy mate for Queen Amidala. His dream that he would return to Tatooine as a Jedi and free the slaves, including his mother, is sure to mean that he will do so in the next movie.

The plotline of Phantom is not "murky" or "impenetrable." It is as simple and straightforward as the plots of all the other Star Wars movies:  We go from Naboo, to Tatooine, to Coruscant, and back to Naboo. On Tatooine, we are delayed by the problem of parts, which is solved by Anakin, who is also added to the company. At Coruscant the Queen decides to return to Naboo and fight. This not confusing. Exactly what the original dispute was about (trade and taxes) is never really explained, but then it doesn't need to be:  That dispute was just a pretext for the blockade and attack on Naboo. There is, indeed, greater complexity in the ending than in other Star Wars movies. Where the final action of the original Star Wars was just the fighter attack on the Death Star, with everyone else just watching, Phantom ends with (1) a fighter attack on the Federation Battleship, (2) a land battle between the Gungans and the android army of the Federation, (3) the Queen's attack to capture the Federation Viceroy, and (4) the sword fight between Qui-gon and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. This is a lot of action, but not anything that is confusing or hard to keep track of. Instead, it is masterful movie making and story telling. It is also an improvement over Return of the Jedi, where the Ewoks did not make a very convincing battle force against a "legion" of the Emperor's crack troops, and where the confrontation between Luke, the Emperor, and Darth Vader contained a bit more talk than action.

The warmth and "emotional pull" of the film has been noted, just how it could be called "humorless" is unbelievable. The Jar Jar Binks character is comic relief from the beginning, but then, as we later discover, he is much more than that. The two-headed announcer at the "pod" race on Tatooine has got to be one of the most inspired bits in recent memory. Anyone who failed to see the humor of the movie thus must have been out talking on their cellphone.

"Overly reverential" must just mean that the characters are taken seriously. This not a fault. We have not seen anyone quite like Qui-gon or Queen Amidala before in Star Wars, but they are as they should be. They are paragons of virtue, which is to be expected in a story about good or evil. That is what Star Wars was always about. There are not a lot of morally ambivalent protagonists or antagonists here. No anti-heroes. This is the kind of thing that the critics didn't like in the first place. Cynicism and ambiguity is what we have come to expect in movies. Star Wars was not the place for it, though it has before it the considerable difficulty of representing how the young Anakin can later "turn" to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. Meanwhile, it is challenge enough to just to deal with people who are as good as Duddley Do-Right but are not meant to be a joke. Instead, there is a depth to what they are.

"Depth" is probably not a word most people would associate with Star Wars. But the religious elements of the story are unmistakable. That Anakin is the result of a virgin birth is at once too obvious and must seem at the same time of unclear significance (it was apparently part of the prophecy about the "Chosen One" -- and now we can see that, in terms of the fatherhood theme of the Star Wars movies, it eliminates the need for a "false father," like Uncle Owen, and sets the story on its path to true fatherhood). Less obvious but much clearer is the theory of the "Force" and the nature of the discipline of someone like Qui-gon. The Jedi hold their swords like samurai swords, and their views and discipline sound like nothing so much as Taoism or Zen Buddhism, which have influenced the ideology of the martial arts. The nature of the light saber, which reflects back laser shots to the shooter, is characteristic of the "Submissive Way" (Chinese , Japanese judô) theory of Taoism, by which the attack of an opponent is turned upon them. This can all be bastardized and misrepresented (almost unavoidable when dealing with Zen), and we certainly would like some more details and background than we get in the movies, where much of the talk about the Force has become a bit repetitious, but three things stand out:  (1) The "Force," even if impersonal, rather than a personal God, can be traced to legitimate, historical, religious ideas (i.e. the Tao, Brahman, the Buddha Dharma, or the Heaven of Confucius), (2) Something of the sort can be taken seriously, even if Lucas himself may not necessarily believe in the supernatural powers of its adepts; and (3) The "Dark Side" of the Force is something definitely present in Taoism and Zen but which those traditions have not been very good at acknowledging. The Dark Side of the Force probably owes more to Jung and his theory of the "Shadow" than to the more obvious antecedents. Indeed, the "Dark Side of the Tao" should be taken as an important novel metaphysical theory and religious conception. Further religious overtones of Phantom include Queen Amidala's name, which looks suspiciously like the Japanese name of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit Amitabha), and this suspicion is reinforced when we realize that the name of her alter ego, Padme, is Sanskrit for "Lotus" (in the locative case), taken out of the famous mantra Om mane padme hum, "the Jewel is in the Lotus."

The constant exhortations of Yoda to avoid anger and hatred are consistent, not only with Buddhism, but also with Christianity and with much of the ethics of Hellenistic philosophy. Jesus says, "I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" [Matthew 5:22]. The Buddha said that what he has taught, "has to do with the fundaments of religion, and tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana" [Buddhism in Translations, Henry Clark Warren, Atheneum, 1987, p. 122]. The Stoic ideal was apátheia, "without passion" (or suffering). In the middle of the great sword fight between Qui-gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul, when each of them is separated by the working of the power station where they are fighting, Qui-gon kneels down calmly, with an "absence of passion," and seems to go into meditation. He is, indeed, a warrior monk. Yoda's description of how fear leads to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to suffering, and suffering to the Dark Side is very much like the cycle of "dependent origination" in Buddhism.

Now, as it happens, I think this theory is mistaken, and I do not believe that an "absence of passion" is a proper ideal. There is nothing wrong with anger or hatred in themselves, as long as they are directed to their proper objects, injustice and evil, and expressed in proportion to the magnitude of the wrong or the evil. Obi-Wan clearly fights Darth Maul with a great deal of passion. To think that these passions are wrong in themselves is a case of judicial moralism of feeling. Nevertheless, it is not a serious criticism of Star Wars to find fault with that theory, since it is well within the traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, and the history of philosophy. That it expresses the theory at all is astonishing enough in movies that are not taken seriously for a minute by the intelligentsia, or the move critics. Instead, we have the subtle and popular presentation of ideals of religious and moral nobility, instantly recognized by the naive, if not by the sophisticated.

The path to the Dark Side is not through fear or anger but through a vicious will. Such a will may be from an innate character (what Schopenhauer thought), from an improper upbringing, or from bad ideas. It is still not clear whether some people are innately vicious, although sometimes this seems like the only explanation for the behavior and attitudes of certain people. Improper unbringing fails to instill those virtues of conscientiousness, prudence, manners, humanity, etc., that are the proper matters of custom and habit, as described by Aristotle's "virtue ethics." Or, a well behaved child can fall in with bad company, especially at adolescence. This may also reflect innate propensities. Bad company, however, can also mean bad ideas, which corrupt reason and judgment. American military observers with the German Army in World War I (before the United States entered the war), heard a great deal of the sort of social and political Darwinism that had been popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche. Later, enthusiastic Communist functionaries would strip the Ukraine of food, leaving the people to starve, all with the confidence and self-righteousness characteristic of Leftist politics. Thus, the Emperor should not have been telling Luke to let go with his hatred, he should have been telling him, like Nietzsche or Thrasymachus, that justice is the will of the stronger, or even like the Nietzschean Voldemort, that "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." Unfortunately, it would not be politically correct of Geroge Lucas to go in that direction, since talk about nothing but power, from a conceputal mash of Nietzsche and Marx, is all too popular among academics and the intelligentsia. Indeed, the economic ideas in the Star Wars movies are bad enough that Lucas in general looks like a willing adherent of the fashion, despite the sins that are occasionally spotted in the triviality of his themes and their [gasp] fantastic commercial success.

Thus, with all its virtues, Phantom Menace shares the same failing as another venerable science fiction series, Star Trek:  A lack of understanding of, and even hostility to, commercial culture and finance. Thus, when the junk dealer Watto refuses to accept Qui-gon's "Republic credits," this is supposed to mean that they are just worthless. However, such a thing is unlikely to impossible. Even "Rim" worlds are not going to be immune to a monetary system that otherwise dominates the entire Galaxy. Even if Watto, for personal reasons, will not accept Republic money, there will be on Tatooine banks, an American Express office, or, at the very least, money changers where the money could be exchanged. If there is some reason, some transactional difficulty, why Republic money is not accepted at face value on Tatooine, well then it would simply be discounted [note]. Watto's rare engine parts are not doing him any good sitting in inventory (in what looks more like a junk yard); and if they sit there too long, they are liable to become obsolete and worthless. It would therefore be in his interest to facilitate the deal with Qui-gon. Of course, in a science fiction world with Galactic travel and culture, and non-Relativistic, instantaneous communication, Qui-gon could certainly just pull out his Jedi Council credit card. Don't leave home without it. Of course, then some other plot device would be necessary to account for our group being stranded briefly on Tatooine.

Watto and Qui-gon behave throughout as though the engine parts have an intrinsic monetary value that is beyond question or negotiation. This is a profound economic error and misconception, although it is characteristic of the most naive Cargo Cult economics, of Marxism (where products derive intrinsic value from the "socially necessary" labor that has gone into them), and of leftist Hollywood political ideas. One learns quickly in any modern Middle Eastern market that the price of anything can change moment by moment, by surprisingly large amounts. I have had tradesmen chase me down the street in Damascus, naming lower and lower prices, when my friends and I had no intention of buying the item in question in the first place. Indeed, the best opening strategy in bargaining is to feign no interest in a purchase. Qui-gon should have acted as though he were casually checking out some spare parts that he actually had no need of at the moment, instead of gratuitously and foolishly revealing that his ship was stranded.

Qui-gon betrays his utter naivete about bargaining when he simply tells Watto that he has 20,000 Republic credits. No sensible, let alone prudent, person opens a negotiation by telling someone how much money he has. All Qui-gon need say is that he has Republic credits. Indeed, he need not name a currency at all. He should negotiate in the medium of exchange suggested by Watto, settle on a price, and then ask what Watto considers the equivalent in Republic credits. When Watto says he won't accept these, or employs an absurd discount, then Qui-gon goes to the bankers or money-changers. But heaven forbid that Star Wars should waste its time on grubby topics like the real world practices of money conversion.

The primary characteristic of the villains in Phantom, apart from the pure evil of the Sith Lords, is greed. The Trade Federation itself is called "greedy" in the main title scroll of the movie, and Qui-gon explicitly figures that he can make use of Watto's greed in order to get the parts they need and to free Anakin (who "has never known greed," according to his mother). Darth Sidious himself is manipulating the greed of the Federation for his purposes; and Senator Palpatine refers to the "greedy" members of the Senate. This is a standard bit of Hollywood leftist, moralistic boilerplate [note]; but it is nevertheless not enough to protect George Lucas from problems with the Thought Police. The Los Angeles Times of Wednesday, May 26, carries a "commentary" by Eric Harrison (pp. F1 & F5) called, "A Galaxy Far, Far off Racial Mark? 'Star Wars' characters like Jar Jar Binks, Nute Gunray and Watto prompt comparisons to insensitive stereotypes." The aliens of the trade federation, it seems, are vaguely Chinese (or Japanese, something), and Watto similarly is more than a little bit, in speech and facial appearance, like certain caricatures of an Arab (his stubbly beard even looks like Yasir Arafat's). Worse, Jar Jar Binks, although mostly like the Disney cartoon character Goofy, and easily irritating to many just for that reason, also gets compared to Stepin Fetchit (now universally regarded as a racist stereotype, although the man himself, born Lincoln Perry, sued CBS in 1970 for defamation of character for showing film clips of him "out of context"). Now I have even heard Boss Nass, the leader of the Gungans, compared to the Kingfish character in the old Amos & Andy radio and television show (which, like Stepin Fetchit, was dismissed in the 60's as playing on demeaning racial stereotypes, though some now think that it does not compare so unfavorably with the stereotypes in recent, popular shows with black casts in the 1990's). Menand seems to be worried that some sort of quota of female parts hasn't been met in any of the Star Wars movies (what must he think about Lawrence of Arabia, or The Thin Red Line?).

These are heavy charges against Lucas, who rather carelessly had failed to include any black actors in the original Star Wars (except for the, at the time, uncredited voice of James Earl Jones for Darth Vader), still hasn't used any obvious Asian actors (though I have spotted two in Phantom), and who was belabored by no less than Carl Sagan (and still by Eric Harrison) for the lack of equality between the Wooky Chewbacca and his human companion Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Sagan pointed out on the Tonight Show that Chewbacca had not even received a commendation along with the humans in the final scene of Star Wars. Lucas would probably be astonished that he should be thought anything other than a good liberal, along with his friends Stephen Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, but the fact that Lucas has never had political correctness as one of his primary considerations is, at the very least, refreshing.

The fundamental artistic question is whether the characters in the movie work aesthetically. This would have been enough for Oscar Wilde, who said, "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault." However, we also should be concerned about the fundamental moral question, which is whether there is some covert message that some rational beings, or human beings, are inherently inferior or evil. If the Federation aliens are vaguely Fu Manchu-ish (or Bridge on the River Kwai Japanese) to some (though they seem more reptilian than anything to me), this can hardly be interpreted as betraying an anti-Asian bias, since Chinese and Japanese religious and aesthetic influence on the Jedi and Queen Amidala is unmistakable. The standard costume of the Jedi, and one of Queen Amidala's outfits, consists of kimonos. It would seem like a case of battling stereotypes (Zen Samurai versus River Kwai?). For what the junk dealer Watto is supposed to be, the stereotype overtones are the kind of thing that seem to work:  Whether these are a convert attack upon the Arabs, or just a certain characterization of a fictional character who has nothing to do with the Arabs, would have to depend on some overall message of the movie, or on George Lucas's own attitudes. The overall message, indeed, would seem to be more disparaging of trade and business than specifically anti-Arab [note]. The problem, then, is not so much the stereotypes, which sometimes have at an element of cultural truth [note], but in the association of commercial culture, whether represented by Arabs, Jews, Lebanese, Greeks, or Armenians, with a morally loaded and negative term like "greed," which is a buzzword to condemn businessmen and their practices, or capitalism altogether. This is a fault, not just of Star Wars, but of much of the academic intelligentsia and elite culture of the United States and elsewhere.

The complaints about Jar Jar or the Gungans being a "black" stereotype are very hard to believe, or even understand. The Gungan aesthetic seems more like Alice in Wonderland than anything else. Although Jar Jar's language is frequently said to be "Caribbean," I am curious just which "Caribbean" the critics are talking about. The accent and language is not Jamaican (though Menand actually says that it is), but I can't say that I am familiar with any other Caribbean accents or dialects. So what is it supposed to be? Simply having a dialect, and simply having this sort of comic relief character, is perhaps supposed to be the sin. And, of course, there were many such comic relief characters, with accents, who were racial or ethnic minorities, based on stereotypes, in old Hollywood movies. However, there were also many white actors who played comic relief side-kicks, often with odd ways of speaking, in old Hollywood movies -- like Gabby Hayes (1885-1969) -- or new ones -- like a character ("Farmer Fran") in the recent The WaterBoy, whose Cajun dialect was so strong that nothing he ever said was intelligible. This seems more affectionate than demeaning. Having such a character thus cannot be taken as such as perpetuating an "insensitive" genre. One of the themes of the Phantom Menace, on the other hand, is the unreliability of first impressions or of prejudices. Jar Jar Binks is at first dismissed as "brainless" by Qui-gon, and all the Gungans are consistently referred to as "primitives" by the Federation Viceroy, but they turn out to actually have a rather sophisticated culture and technology. They give the Queen, after her moving appeal, enough of an edge to fight the Federation. Similarly, the Queen herself is consistently underestimated by Lord Sidious. The last scene of the movie, with the Queen triumphant, is the honoring of the Gungans, just the opposite of the scene in the original Star Wars. If anything, this looks like Lucas's response to his original critics; but, as he may well understand himself, they are not going to give him a break. There is something about Star Wars -- the war between good and evil -- that just bugs them.

The Star Wars movies, unlike the Star Trek shows, only rarely employ a lot of techno-babble. They tend to assume a lot of science and technology that is pretty standard science fiction fare. The major gaff of the original Star Wars was Han Solo using the term "parsec" like it was a unit of time. As Carl Sagan noted, all they needed to do was hire an "impecunious graduate student" to advise them that a parsec is a unit of distance (equal to 3.2616 light years). The Phantom Menace, however, shares an awkward scientific problem with The Empire Strikes Back. In both of them a ship is stuck without its "hyperdrive" and so must divert to a nearby location for repairs. In Empire, this was the Cloud City where Darth Vader was setting a trap for Luke; and in Phantom, it is the desert planet of Tatooine. However, "nearby" is a very relative term. Without the ability to go faster than the velocity of light, noplace would be "nearby" in the kind of time frame for travel that we are dealing with in the stories. With sub-light travel, one could get all around a solar system in a few hours, but it would take years to get to even a nearby star. The closest star to the Earth is Alpha Centauri, at 4.24 light years. If ships can move from one star system to another in the Star Wars movies without being able to go faster than light, we would have to have a much, much denser system of stars than we are familiar with in the Milky Way. That is always possible (though the Star Wars star field images show stars no brighter or denser that we are familiar with), but it seems more likely that the need for a "hyperdrive" for any star travel at all was overlooked.

Finally, one might wonder about the real political significance of the dispute over trade and taxes in The Phantom Menace, and of the danger looming of the Republic becoming the Empire. The very fact that the Star Wars Galactic Republic has a "Trade Federation" with a "trade franchise," i.e. some kind of monopoly or favored trade status, is bad news. The Republic would have no business granting such a "franchise" in the first place. For us, there is still intense dispute over trade, on the same terms as a century ago, between free trade and protectionism. The answer, as then, is really very simple:  Free trade is best for consumers; protective tariffs are best for producers. If the purpose of production is consumption, as Adam Smith originally held, then the choice must be for free trade. If the purpose of production is to help businessmen or protect jobs, then the choice must be for protectionism. In a democracy, the purpose of helping businessmen is not going to go far. However, the purpose of protecting jobs can have great appeal, especially to organized labor, which consistently seeks job security. If jobs are protected, however, through tariffs, this means that consumers pay the difference; and it means that any inefficiency, irrationality, or stagnation in business can be blamed on "unfair" foreign competition, which will require greater protection. The result of that can be complete stagnation, even negative economic growth, as has been the case in the '90's in European social-democracies like Sweden and France. Free trade imposes a discipline on business and a penalty on inefficiency and irrationality that can be avoided once resort is made to protectionism. But they cannot be avoided forever, since consumers cannot be expected to pay more indefinitely just to prop up bloated and complacent industries or spoiled workers who think they have a right to do less and less for more and more.

Disputes over taxes are usually between those who want to keep their own money for themselves and those who like the idea of spending other people's money, taken from them by force, for purposes that they think are worthier (like their own livelihood) than those of others. As the 19th century French liberal Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) said:

The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.

Bill Clinton, giving a speech early in 1999, after announcing his plans for the projected Federal budget surplus in his State of the Union message, said that, "We could give the money back to you, but you might not spend it right." He knew that he could spend the money "right" and that the rest of us cannot be trusted to do so. It is rare that the condescending paternalism of someone like Clinton is so nakedly exposed. Thus, even though the American Revolution began with tax revolts, and government now takes more than 40% of most people's income in taxes, people who complain about taxes are often dismissed or smeared as "tax dodgers" who don't want to "contribute" their "fair share." "Fair share" of what? Of the latest brainstorm from the kind of social engineers who were going to abolish poverty in the 60's, only to have the poverty rate as high now as it was then (after spending more than five trillion dollars)? Or who meanwhile have all but destroyed education? But this is all part of the larger issue of the fate of the Republic.

When Queen Amidala says, "The Republic no longer functions," might this apply to the Great Republic, the United States of America? Unfortunately, the answer must be "yes." The Founders of this Nation would today consider it to be largely the opposite of what they intended, a government far gone as an active system of theft and tyranny. Darth Sidious in that respect was Franklin D. Roosevelt, under whom the basic Constitutional principles of limited government and enumerated powers were destroyed. A Federal government of plenary, absolute powers, corrupted into a system of buying votes and handing out subsidies, with self-righteous grandstanding through draconian laws about things that are no business of government, was thereafter just a matter of filling in the details. Another heavy blow against freedom, however, was struck under Lyndon Johnson, when the worthy goal of abolishing Segregation was extended into an attack on private freedom of association and private property rights. By this means, the noble cause of civil rights, which were meant to limit the power of government, became corrupted into a means of expanding the power of government into an assault on the private activities and preferences of citizens in disposing of their own substance through their own peaceful activities. These now were the principles of totalitarian social engineering, not those of a free country. Under Bill Clinton, there has been little rest, despite recent Republican control of Congress, in the effort to federalize all criminal law, all government action whatsoever, and even to intrude the federal government as an active competitor to parents in child rearing. This is all sold, of course, in the guise of "helping" parents; but George Lucas's own first film, THX 1138 [1971], put it best, when the robot policemen, agents of a regime that only with considerable understatement can be called a "police state," pursuing Robert Duvall, constantly call to him, "We only want to help." The state that "wants to help," but doesn't want to leave people alone, ends up destroying those who want only to help themselves -- like those who need medical marijuana. This is what we have come to:  The federal government arresting people dying of cancer and AIDS because they don't have the right to choose a drug that can actually help them. The evil "Empire," casually destroying the lives of the helpless with "compassion" on its lips, is already well in place in Washington.

Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao

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Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Note 1

Thus, I arrived in Paris in 1970 from Switzerland with several dollars in Swiss coins that I didn't want, but the banks in Paris didn't want to bother with changing coins, which were not worth their trouble. Eventually I found a changeur who took the coins, with Swiss francs at par with French francs. Since a Swiss franc was worth 25 cents at the time and a French franc only 20 cents, this was a considerable discount. That was the cost paid to the money changer for taking the coins at all.

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Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Note 2

There may not be too many viewers who have had the chance I had to buy things in traditional Arab markets in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria. One of my experiences was in a shop in Aleppo, when I had to give a fairly large note to the shopkeeper for a purchase. He called a young boy to the front (Anakin?) to take the note back to the shop safe for change. I noticed from his instructions, in Arabic, that he asked for less money in change than was owing to me. He may not have thought that my Arabic was good enough to understand him. My Arabic, indeed, wasn't all that good, but it was good enough to know what he said. When the boy brought the money up, and it was passed on to me, I said that this was not the correct amount, and that I should get back more change. The shopkeeper looked at me for a moment and then called to the boy to bring the extra money. One might think that such a man would be embarrassed to be found out in trying to short-change a customer. Instead, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand. By not being cheated, I had gained some respect!

So what is one to think of this kind of thing? In a culture of bargaining, one is respected for being a good bargainer. P.T. Barnum said it all, "Never give a sucker an even break." Is this just a "stereotype"? No, it is a cultural practice, a very ancient one. But it also means that a naive person is just asking to be taken, though more people may take advantage of that than others. Attributing these practices and attitudes to Arabs may seem hostile to those who don't know what traditional Arab, or Middle Eastern, society is like, but it can hardly be so when one is aware that, in fact, such a society is morally superior to the kind, now all too familiar, where all prices are fixed by the State and farmers and businesses are bankrupted, crippling society, because they cannot turn a profit, or even break even. The moral perversity, viciousness, and stupidity of the latter is rarely exposed in Hollywood movies or television, while the "greedy" businessman turns up as the villain in a wildly disproportional number of stories. Give me Watto over Lenin any day.

Issues of cultural stereotypes are more thoroughly discussed in "Ethnic Prejudice, Stereotypes, Discrimination, and the Free Market."

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Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Note 3

Qui-gon seems to be a character unanticipated in the earlier Star Wars movies. In The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan refers to Yoda as his teacher. The implication is even that Yoda trained all the Jedi:  Obi-Wan explains to Luke that he mistakenly thought that he could train Anakin "as well as Yoda." We are given to understand that Anakin turning to the Dark Side was the result of Obi-Wan's defective teaching. Now it is clear that Yoda himself does not train all the Jedi, except to help primary teachers like Qui-gon, and that Obi-Wan's role is the result of (1) Qui-gon's determination to train Anakin, (2) Obi-Wan's deathbed promise to Qui-gon to train him, and (3) the Jedi Council's permission (over Yoda's objection) for this arrangement.

This all may answer an obvious question:  Did George Lucas have the whole Star Wars story mapped out in detail before making the movies? The answer seems to be that, although he may have had a general story in mind, many of the details, like the existence of Qui-gon, he has indeed made up as he goes along.

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Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Note 4

However, in the hands of different film makers, or in a different era, Watto might have taken on Jewish characteristics, drawing on an anti-Semitic condemnation of "greed" as something characteristically Jewish (as in Karl Marx or, of course, Adolf Hitler). Since Watto is given a very large nose, we might wonder. This does not make the use of the stereotype seems so benign, though an Arab merchant is much less threatening and hostile than the more frequent stereotype in American movies, the Arab terrorist.

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Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Note 5

Menand's critical faculties also seem suspect when he accuses the original Star Wars of being "in many respects a reactionary film." "Reactionary" is a political term, not a term of art criticism -- except for politicized critics like, apparently, Menand. The corresponding term for art would be "retro" (i.e. "retrospective"). "He just raided the past," Menand says. So what? Greek tragedy "raided" Greek mythology for its themes. Since Lucas himself has spoken explicitly many times about his interest in mythic themes and how he wanted Star Wars to be like that, Menand is positively perverse in his blockheaded avoidance or blindness to that dimension of these movies. A catalogue of how Lucas draws on earlier Hollywood movies proves nothing except that Lucas is a great artist who knows how to echo the great art of the past. Nevertheless, Lucas also created something new, to which critics like Menand are both blind and envious. Star Wars was a sensation in 1977, and The Phantom Menance, although perhaps not destined to surpass Titanic as the most successful movie ever, has for many weeks kept up a faster pace at passing box office milestones. Lucas clearly has a gift of touching a nerve, and he knows it. Critics like Menand still haven't figured it out.

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Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Note 6

Is this Queen Amidala? No, it is the Grand Duchess Xenia (1875-1960), sister of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. We probably forget what royalty and nobility used to dress like. Xenia's dress, however, was not standard for her period. This was a 17th revival that she wore to a costume ball in 1903. It has a definite mediaeval, central Asian feel to it.

The Grand Duchess and her children were rescued from the Crimea by a British cruiser in 1919. They escaped the massacre of the Imperial Family by the Bolsheviks.

Update, Attack of the Clones

It has been suggested to me that George Lucas has viewed this page, because one of Padme/Amidala's costumes in Episode II, The Attack of the Clones looks at bit like that of Grand Duchess Xenia. Well, maybe a little. If so, I wish some other things on this page had influenced the new movie more.

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Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Note 7;
A Rolls Royce in Every Garage

Lest the reader suspect that I am overinterpreting a few words in the movie, a fuller expression has now come to my attention, from Star Wars Episode I, Incredible Cross-Sections, by David West Reynolds, illustrated by Hans Jenssen & Richard Chasemore [DK Publishing, authorized Lucasfilm Ltd., 1999]:


HE VEHICLES OF Star Wars: Episode I reveal a time very different from the later day when spacecraft of Empire and Rebels alike will bear the harsh lines and mechanical looks of factory-produced constructions. In this era, the Old Republic still rules the galaxy, and craftsmen still rule the world of design -- although in both cases that rule is beginning to unravel. Market forces have only begun to undermine the ancient traditions of craftsmanship, and as a result we see individuality, elegant curves, and true art in many of Episode I's vehicles. Looming over these creations is the specter of the Trade Federation, with its utilitarian cargo vessels converted into armed war freighters, its greedy practices ready to wipe out the mark of the individual craftsman in the heartless pursuit of profit. For now, however, the galaxy remains filled with extraordinary vessels, testaments -- like all things a culture builds -- to the unique identity of their age. [p. 3]

This passage is hardly vulnerable to overinterpretation, with its nasty references to "factory construction" and "market forces," and more. But the truth is that these simply mean that things can be mass produced for the general public. Things produced by individual craftsman, as in the Mediaeval tradition, are rare, expensive, and only purchased by royalty, nobility, or the wealthy. The individuality of the craftsman, who can continue producing for his original clients (e.g. Rolls Royces), does not help promote the individuality of most people, who cannot afford his works. On the other hand, what leftist romanticization of Mediaeval Guilds dismisses as "the heartless pursuit of profit," in reality makes available products that improve the lives of everyone, as Henry Ford was able "to wipe out the mark of the individual craftsman" to put the United States on the "utilitarian" wheels of Model T Fords. Would everyone have led richer and happier lives to have been driving Rolls Royces rather than the black "harsh lines and mechanical looks" of the Fords? Perhaps. But there were not enough Rolls Royces, and they were too expensive, to go around. But what was produced by state ownership and control by the politically anointed in East Germany, decades after Henry Ford and without the pursuit of profit, was considerably uglier and less reliable than the Model T Ford. This also ignores the influence of functionalism in art itself.

There is great irony to all this, since the intelligentsia, as we see in The New York Review of Books review, despise George Lucas precisely for the way he detects the pulse of "market forces," i.e. vulgar desires, and is able to make obscene profits off of them. This is an irony of many of the rich and successful in America. They thrive on the market, i.e. what people want, but then they tend to pick up and repeat nasty leftist disparagements of the same (e.g. Ted Turner). The only thing worse is those who become wealthy at the public trough, like lawyers, professional politicians, and activists, and already understand how to continue (e.g. the Clintons).

Update: Bauhaus to Our House

There turns out to be a deeper irony in the various attitudes of both George Lucas and his cultural critics. The style that Lucas attributes to capitalism, namely mass produced, machine made, and unadorned products, although we can assign something of the sort to people like Henry Ford, was nevertheless seized, developed, and expanded by socialists, especially the architects and designers of the German Bauhaus center and movement. This was all marvelously explored by Tom Wolfe in his 1981 book, From Bauhaus to Our House.

O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?

I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse. Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.

Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railing, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide factory. [Picador; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p.1, color added]

What the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, and his many colleagues and imitators, wanted, was cheap and utilitarian "workers housing," which reflected the industrial and efficient economy that the Marxist worker could be expected to admire. Fortunately for the good taste and sense of the workers, they detested this stuff, and so we only get its full horror in Stalinist Russia and in the dismal and dangerous "public housing" of the democracies ("projects" in the U.S., "council estates" in Britain). What the Bauhäusler could not have anticipated is that the style they promoted would mesmerize the cultural elite and the intelligentsia, the people who had no need for workers housing but who wanted to "identify" with the workers' struggle and the aesthetic of the brave new world. So they ended up paying, not for the rich individual craftsmanship that benefited the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers in their Fifth Avenue mansions and elsewhere, but for the equally expensive, but very unadorned, works of modern architects and "designers."

Robert Hughes covers much of the same ground in his video history of modern art, The Shock of the New [1980]. Between Hughes and Wolfe we get a full picture of these avant-garde architects and designers. They were aiming, not just at architecture, but at a complete way of life, which included tasteless vegetable diets (redeemed only by garlic) and functional "rational" kinds of furniture that provide no comfort for the human body but, in the acerbic observation of Hughes, now live on in airports and corporate waiting rooms. Wolfe dwells on the hostility of the architects for the simple convenience of window shades, whose absence pleases their sense of style but subjects workers (O the blessed workers!) to the heat and glare coming off the miles of glass that now constitute the exterior walls of office buildings and even homes. Pity the au courrant client who does not wish to rise with the sun or make the doings of their bedrooms available to the inspection of the neighbors. And the notion that this architecure is utilitarian, functional, and rational is impeached by the preference for flat roofs, which are the most unsuitable for the rains and snows of the climates for which most of the buildings were intended, making them particulary vulnerable to leaks, if not collapse. Also, elevating buildings so that the bottom is as visible as the sides makes them that much harder to heat in the cold climates.

Thus, George Lucas seems to be deeply confused. It is not a case of "greedy practices ready to wipe out the mark of the individual craftsman in the heartless pursuit of profit," but the arrogance of the would-be elite of the socialist ruling class who decide that the "mark of individual craftsman" consists only of bourgeois "noodles" that are offensive to all efficiency and rationality. At the same time, the "individual craftsman," whether socialist or capitalist, always has low productivity and thus cannot provide for a mass market in either system. The enlightened "international style" simply put most of the craftsmen out of business. Under socialism, the remaining crafted products are rationed and thus simply unavailable (except for the political or bureaucratic elite), while under capitalism they will be naturally rationed by high prices -- and thus available to anyone aspiring to economic success. At the same time, Lucas's digs at "Skywalker Ranch" in Marin County, California (one of the wealthiest counties in the country), do not look much like "workers housing"; and the billions of dollars for which he sold the Star Wars franchise to Disney begin to sound more than a bit like the "heartless pursuit of profit." His own stated aspirations to make quality art films and avoid corporate involvement pretty much came to nothing. Yet his foolish opinions probably haven't changed much.

Giuseppe Terragni (1904-1943) and Pietro Lingeri (1894-1968) were well-known exponents of the rationalist style of architecture then in vogue. Inspired by the work of the Swiss architect Le Corbousier (pseudonym of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), Italian rationalism in the 1920s and 1930s celebrated simple geometric forms, transparency (with ample use of glass) and functionality. Mussolini famously declared on June 20, 1929, that fascism, as "a glass house in which everyone must and can see one another...."

Guy P. Raffa, Dante's Bones, How a Poet Invented Italy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020, p.228, boldface added.

The Farnsworth Glass House of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

The Wall Street Journal of March 21-22, 2020, contains a review, "Let the Outside In," by Witold Rybcznski of the book Broken Glass, Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece, by Alex Beam [Random House, 2020]. I've read this book, which added a great deal of information and also corrected some confusions I got from the review.

In 1945 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) designed a house for the wealthy Dr. Edith Farnsworth (1903-1977). The reviewer and the author of the book seem quite aware of the drawbacks of the house. However, they apparently agree that it is a "Modernist Masterpiece," as the subtitle of the book says. However, the "Fransworth House" embodies almost everything that is wrong with "modernist" architecture. Everything about it is a disaster, even though it is a "National Historic Site" and is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was built for imaginary people living imaginary lives, not for real human beings and real life. Its preservation, however, might seem to belong in the same category as the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. A sort of nightmare place. At least it doesn't look like a Tom Wolfe "insecticide factory."

Another Glass House was built by Philip Johnson (1906-2005), who at the time was an admirer of van der Rohe, in New Caanan, Connecticut. This was finished before the Farnsworth House and exhibits some differences in its design. It doesn't look like Johnson ever actually lived there. Nearby on the same property, he built a "Brick House," notionally as a guest house, but it became the actual residence, with the Glass House used for receptions or parties -- functions where privacy would not be an issue. Later, Johnson became disillusioned with van der Rohe; and in The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes shows us Johnson voicing reasonable criticism of the "Internation Style" followed by van der Rohe.

Johnson, fortunately, became disillusioned with some other things, like Nazi Germany, for which he was briefly enthusiastic. Indeed, Johnson actually went on a motoring tour of German Occupied Poland, where, he said, a smokestack in a burnt out village inspired the internal brick service structure in his Glass House. Unlike C.J. Jung, who denied the validity of the evidence of what looked like his own brief enthusiasm for the Nazis, Philip Johnson's infatuation could hardly be later obscured. While no enthusiast for the Nazis, van der Rohe himself was sufficiently complacent as to submit architecture projects to them. However, even if his politics was non-judgmental, the Nazis knew that they didn't like the Bauhaus, which Mies was heading. That sank his chances with them, and he left for the States -- leaving behind various people, like his family, who he didn't bothering trying to get out of Germany.

The Farnsworth House is near Plano, Illinois, adjacent to the Fox River. Farnsworth had bought the land and wanted a kind of getaway house. So the minimal nature of the house, which is pretty much one big room, was not entirely incommensurable with its purpose. However, like so much "modernist" architecture, the house is unsuited for the site, for the area, and even for the climate. It was also plagued with mundane problems of its design, like inadequate heating and a poorly constructed fireplace.

As Robert Hughes points out, architects like van der Rohe liked boxes. The Farnsworth House has a flat roof, and the whole house is raised off the ground to show its flat bottom. Perhaps there is something sexual about that. It does address a certain foolish idea about "efficiency," that there is no wasted space. And we can see the efficiency of its underside. However, that the house is elevated off the ground was also an accommodation to its site. It is close to, i.e. within sight of, the Fox River, which overflows with some regularity; and Farnsworth and Mies were well informed about this. If the water isn't too deep, the house is alright, although any resident or visitor would need to wade through water to get to it. Mies suggested using a canoe. And boats sometimes were indeed used. An elevated pathway would have been nice, like what Pete Nelson builds for his treehouses. Come to think of it, a treehouse would have been just the thing at the Farnsworth site. But Farnsworth herself compounded the problem by ruling out an all-weather driveway to the house, a garage, or any other accommodation for access. So it is not clear where an elevated walkway would even have gone.

Alex Beam does not consider that raised boxes were a feature of the "International Style," such as are illustrated with examples by Robert Hughes. Philip Johnson, on the other hand, placed his Glass House directly on a brick foundation, and he did not site on the house on a flood plain. Not all his thinking was a reflection of the ideology.

In any case, the flat roof of both the Farnsworth and the Johnson Houses entirely ignores the snow that falls in Illinois and Connecticut. Van der Rohe himself, from Germany, ought to know about snow -- as Hughes reminds us -- but no such consideration ever troubled the ideal boxes of the modernist style. Also, the roof of the Farnsworth House was poorly designed in its own right. Runoff was supposed to go down a drain into the house's own plumbing. Although I can't imagine that the system really could accommodate heavy rainful, Beam doesn't mention any problems in that respect. Our plumber was alarmed that our sump pump put water into into the septic tank. That wasn't the job for the tank. On the other hand, as the tar paper of the Farnsworth roof weathered, it all pulled away from the edge of the building, opening large gaps all the way around. The day came when rain poured through the gaps into the house, ruining many furnishings.

The exposed bottom, although insulated, and the glass windows meant that the house would be difficult to heat in the winter -- something again that should have been familiar from Germany -- and that it would be hot in the summer. That is less like Germany, but something a sensible architect would have taken into consideration. For all its windows, the house only has two small windows that actually open. Mies wasn't going to have any! But Farnsworth insisted, with a result still totally inadequate -- and the windows had to be opened to provide a draft for the fireplace, which meant that the house remained cold even with a fire burning -- sometimes even a higher chimney could have taken care of that. Modern airconditioning can overcome, to an extent, the fault of summer ventilation; but no one doing an environmental evaluation of the house, for actual energy efficiency, would give it any credit for its design.

Double-glazed windows existed at the time, but Mies refused to use them. He complained that they didn't come in sizes large enough, and he didn't trust the seal that kept the evacuated space in them clean. So the Farnsworth House windows would fog up. That could have been remedied with a heating system that would de-fog them; but nothing of the sort was considered. Dr. Farnsworth herself had to wipe off the moisture by hand, just so the windows would fulfill their purpose -- transparency. Even with airconditioning, such problems could persist until all the glass is replaced. Beam gives no indication that this has been done.

Similar unconcern for the climate is evident in the treatment of the outdoor porch and terrace. Screens were on order for the porch, but Farnsworth cancelled the order because the costs of the house were ballooning, usually without any warning to her. Later she had the screening done; but at some point in the subsequent history of the house, after Farnsworth left, the screens were removed, which is how we see it now. The terrace was never screened. The un-airconditioned interior of the house cannot have been very pleasant at the end of a summer day; but whoever had the bright idea of removing the screens would not themselves be sitting outside in the summer twilight, as the mosquitoes swarm over anyone sitting there. People even just visiting the house in the summer would come away covered with bites. I wonder how much the porch and terrace are even used.

The most conspicuous feature of the house may just be that it is a fishbowl. Modernist architects seem to like fishbowls. It does allow residents a nice view of their surroundings, which seems to be the idea at the Farnsworth site. However, a fishbowl is something that affords residents no privacy. Anybody can look in; and the fame of the Farnsworth House tended to attract trespassers who wanted to see it. And, perhaps, see what was going on inside. Architects never seem to worry about that. Farnsworth would sometimes wake up to find people looking in at her.

Drapes were installed by Mies for the windows; but, as Tom Wolfe points out, the architects of glass didn't much like drapes, since they obscured the beauty of all the transparency. Mies wanted silk drapes, and I wonder how opaque they actually were. When they were destroyed by the leaking roof, Farnsworth may have replaced them with something more opaque, such as we see now. Otherwise, kitchen, bedroom, and living areas of the house are all visible from the exterior. The only fully private spaces are the two bathrooms, whose duplication doesn't make a whole lot of sense in a house designed for no house guests. That was actually Farnsworth's idea, although guests would only have a couch to sleep on. And we must reflect that opaque drapes mean that their use reduces the interior of the house to darkness or twilight. There are no windows designed to provide light, view, and privacy all at the same time -- such as curtains on the lower part of a sash window.

Van der Rohe himself never lived in a fishbowl. And the "open design," with no interior walls, such as he made for Farnsworth and some other houses, was no part of his own personal spaces. His apartment in Chicago, where he lived out his life, was of a very conventional design. So he never endured the consequences of his own ideas.

I spent a night in something like a fishbowl once. This was the "Solarium" room of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico. It was on the roof of the hotel, which meant there wasn't a great view into the room from down below. And the windows, many with screens, were pretty conventional. The bath was in one corner of the room, with its own windows, looking out on the vast open spaces of the Taos Pueblo. The presence of the fan shows the lack of airconditioning; but then the altitude of Taos and the dry New Mexico air takes a lot of the sting out of the heat. Altogether, the Solarium was a lot more pleasant than I can imagine living at the Farnsworth House. But the Solarium wasn't even originally intended to be a hotel room.

Beam mentions that another version of the "glass house" concept got built where the glass part was on a second story, while the first story was a conventional house, with privacy, rooms, etc. That would be like combining the Glass House of Philip Johnson with his Brick House, with the obvious or presumed advantages of both. A similar effect may be evident in the "Stahl House," designed by Pierre Koenig, in Los Angeles [p.161]. All the unobstructed glass there faces a swimming pool, out over a cliff top, and so to an open, aerial view of Los Angeles. Privacy could only be violated by someone floating in the air, or perhaps in a helicopter. Although we see this house used in the movie Galaxy Quest [1999], we do not see whether it is protected from the street side, as I might imagine, with opaque walls or shuttered windows.

As we see in Mr. Beam's book, and as even reflected in the title, Broken Glass, the relationship between van der Rohe and Dr. Farnsworth did not end well. There were recriminations and lawsuits. All of that is secondary, however, to the strange circumstance that a misconceived and unlivable house should be celebrated as a "masterpiece." But fishbowls are still popular with architects, as they must also be popular with Peeping Toms, burglars, stalkers, and anyone else interested in what people are doing in the "privacy" of their homes. Perhaps they reflect a bit of voyeurism on the part of the architects, who, as we see with both van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, chose not to live in such things. Certainly they would fit in with the device of porno movies that an observer eavesdrops on people having sex, usually from insufficient concealment or unrealistic sightlines. Perfectly realistic in a fishbowl. But perhaps there are enough exhibitionists to provide a good market for the houses. Some friends of mine who used to live in Atlanta commented that it seemed like the larger and more expensive the houses, the easier it was to look in the windows, which were innocent of curtains, drapes, blinds, or shutters, at least in so far as one could tell. The Farnsworth and Johnson Glass Houses are not available on that market, anyway. They are museums.

When Alex Beam comes to the attack on the "International Style" in 1953 by Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful magazine, and the "friend and supporter" of Edith Farnsworth, he wants to make sure that we know with which side the angels are aligned. Thus, while Gordon's critique is ominously titled "The Threat to the Next America," Beam helpfully adds that this "anticipated the philippics of the John Birch Society," perhaps not realizing that, without explanation, the modern reader may not know what the "John Birch Society" was, or whether Elizabeth Gordon actually had anything to do with it [p.226]. Just in case the force of the reference be lost on anyone, Beam adds:

It would be ungracious to note how her views overlapped with those of self-styled architecture critic Adolf Hitler. [p.232]

We might as well remind the frustrated commuter, whose train is late out of Penn Station, that he perhaps would have been happier with Benito Mussolini, whose trains ran on time. And we might remind Mr. Beam that Adolf Hitler, safely dead, cannot have had any "views" about the glass houses of either Mies van der Rohe or Philip Johnson circa 1949. And it would certainly be "ungracious" to remind Beam, again, that he has himself informed us of the complacency of Mies, and of the enthusiasm of Johnson, for the actual Nazis in their own day. But Beam may not have known that Mussolini himself compared fascism to a "glass house," avant la lettre, as we see in the epigraph above (Il Fascismo è una casa di vetro, "Fascism is a glass house"). Indeed, totalitarianism, a term coined by Mussolini, eliminates all personal privacy. A "glass house" is the perfect metaphor.

Thus, Beam's effort at guilt by association, or a smear, is both clumsy and incoherent, rebounding on itself. And he has forgotten, if he knew, how Robert Hughes also saw Bauhaus furniture design as indeed "sterile, cold, thin, uncomfortable" [ibid.]. You and Adolf Hitler, fella.

Such fishbowl houses, however, certainly qualify as products of the "craftsmen" celebrated by George Lucas -- very expensive "craftsmen" in the form of celebrated and wealthy architects. That was what Dr. Farnsworth thought she was getting. Someone good at his "craft." But Mies van der Rohe wasn't good at his "craft." He was a kind of ideologue, pushing ridiculous ideas that only the wealthy, corporations, or governments could afford. If only Pete Nelson had been around. But Edith Farnsworth even lived in the place, as her getaway, despite all its problems, for fifteen years. She then ended up moving to Italy and lived the rest of her life in a stone villa near Florence. It has small traditional windows. Must have been, at last, a comfort.

We can see more of Lucas's confusion about the meaning of commercial culture in the DVD of THX 1138, The George Lucas Director's Cut.

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THX 1138,
The George Lucas Director's Cut

Warner Brothers Entertainment, 1970, 2004

In the world we live in -- and the system we’ve created for ourselves, in terms of it’s a big industry -- you cannot lose money. So the point is that you’re forced to make a particular kind of movie. And I used to say this all the time, with people, you know, back when Russia was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and they’d say, "Oh, but aren’t you so glad that you’re in America?" And I’d say, well, I know a lot of Russian filmmakers and they have a lot more freedom than I have[!]. All they have to do is be careful about criticizing the government. Otherwise, they can do anything they want[!].

George Lucas, interview with Charlie Rose, "Notable & Quotable: George Lucas and Soviet Cinema," The Wall Street Jounral, January 4, 2016, A13; in 2012 Lucas sold Lucasfilm and the "Star Wars" franchise to Disney Films for $4 billion; with all his success, money, and power he never made the "art" films he always said he wanted to make, and Disney was just the kind of corportation he always said he was fighting against. Star Wars fans celebrated that he was not associated in any way with the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Auteur cinema encountered difficulties in the 1960s and 1970s, partly because its poetic language remained inaccessible for the masses and made no considerable win at the box office, and partly because its symbolism was often feared to lead astray Soviet cinema’s political agenda. Sometimes international pressure or support could mean that a film was released for international screenings, while it remained undistributed or in low distribution at home. This applies to most films of the leading auteurs of the period: Andrei Tarkovsky, whose Andrei Rublev was delayed for seven years; Alexei Gherman, whose Trial on the Roads was banned; Alexander Sokurov, whose films were stopped during production (Anaesthesia Dolorosa); and Kira Muratova, who had two films banned and was prevented from working as a director until the 1980s.

Auteur cinema, which emphasized the individual artistic impulse, stood in sharp contrast to the socialist principle and was condemned, even with hindsight, by [Soviet filmmaker] Sergei Gerasimov... "They [the auteur filmmakers] want to preach like a genius, a messiah. That position is incompatible with our communist ethics."

Birgit Beumers, "The Stagnation (1967-82)," A History of Russian Cinema, 2009, "Notable & Quotable: George Lucas and Soviet Cinema," The Wall Street Jounral, January 4, 2016, A13

The 2004 released DVD of George Lucas's first movie, THX 1138, with commentary and documentaries, gives us a better picture of Lucas's economic ideas than the hints I was interpreting in the Note to Star Wars, The Phantom Menace above.

THX 1138 was a spare but excellent science fiction movie about a totalitarian police state of the future, from which Robert Duvall manages, by the end of the movie, to escape. This was an expanded version of a film that Lucas made as a student at the USC film school. Warner Brothers Studio didn't like the movie and didn't do much to promote it. As it happened, it didn't do well, nearly sinking Lucas's career. I originally saw the movie screened on campus at the University of Hawaii in 1972. I liked it enough that I was eager to see Lucas's next film, which was American Graffiti [1973]. To say the least, that film, a classic, did much better -- though the epic and stratospheric success of Star Wars still lay in the future [1977].

THX 1138 is thematically fairly consistent but is rendered all but incoherent by Lucas's comments about it now. On the slip cover of the DVD Lucas says that the movie is about "a shift away from creativity and individual achievement and toward a corporate, consumerist mentality." Lest we think this is a momentary lapse into leftist clichés, we get the same idea repeated over and over again in his voice-over commentary on the movie, which he says was about what he thought that American society had become in the 1950's and '60's.

Unfortunately, if the movie is supposed to be about consumerism, there is no visible consumer economy in it. Everyone wears identical white clothing and shaves their heads. So there is no fashion industry, no hair care products, no cosmetics. Everyone lives in apartments that contain plain white rooms, with only minimal and functionalistic furniture. There are no personal possessions evident, and no decorations. The aesthetic makes the Bauhaus look like Circus Circus. Since everyone is sedated, it is clear why looking at blank walls all the time doesn't bother anyone. While the government does urge people to "buy," there are no images of anything to buy, and the characters do not buy anything and apparently never have. Robert Duvall does return home one day with a small red polyhedron, but what the object is supposed to be is never explained, and Duvall's roommate disposes of it as though she doesn't want him to have it. In the commentary, Lucas's co-writer, Walter Murch, explains that the polyhedron is the consumer item that the government has been urging people to buy, and that disposing of it is the only thing to do with it. There is nothing in the movie to remotely suggest this, and in any case it is senseless as some kind of example of "consumerism." Critics of commercial culture believe that consumer products are worthless and unnecessary, but at least there is something to do with them. Even paintings on black velvet can be hung on the wall and looked at. What critics of commercial culture really detest is the clutter, the kitch, and the vulgarity of consumer products, a "mass" culture very different from the authentic "folk" culture that the left always supposedly treasures. But there is no clutter or kitch in THX 1138, and the vulgarity is confined to a briefly seen erotic dance by a hologram of a black woman. Sexual stimulation or activity beyond that is illegal -- hardly the picture of a consumer society where "sex sells" and only religious fundamentalists and anti-sex feminists complain about it.

As for a "corporate" mentality, the only corporation of any kind evident in the movie is the state. Yet critics of consumerism and corporations -- apart from fantasyland anarchists -- have no remedy to either of these apart from greater power and greater control for the government. Even the self-described anarchist Noam Chomsky believes in suppressing corporations by giving the state more power. The bleak, impersonal life of THX 1138, devoid of personal products or the slightest bit of adornment or ornament, is like nothing so much in the experience of the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the other dismal members of the Marxist fraternity of nations. Yet in the commentary, Walter Murch again goes out of his way to identify the police state interrogations of the movie with "McCarthyism." It is thus America, as the left likes to think, that is the police state, while the Soviet Union was merely defending itself and keeping its people virtuous. Agents of the Soviet Union, whose leader, Josef Stalin, was committing mass murder at the time, people who had betrayed, not just their own country, but humanity itself, liked to represent themselves as just good liberals being persecuted for their beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment. This was a lie. Although these same people did not believe in the First Amendment and were eager for a regime that would put people who did believe in it in concentration camps (like the "reeducation" camps of Vietnam after the communist victory), people like Walter Murch have still swallowed the deception hook, line, and sinker -- even more than a decade after the Soviet Union and most of its ilk collapsed. While Lucas did not join in with Murch's comments, his silence, and the thrust of the rest of his commentary, does not seem adverse to them. Indeed, Lucas put in his movie the line, "Are you now or have you ever been?" that Murch cites as the reference to McCarthyism -- from the question that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC, which Joseph McCarthy had nothing to do with) asked witnesses ("Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?").

Although a disinterested viewer of THX 1138 would see nothing so much as a version of life in the Soviet Union, from which so many people, sometimes at the cost of their lives, tried to escape, the political and economic understanding of Lucas and Murch behind the movie is something else, something hopelessly confused, ignorant, and incoherent. As with Lucas's own economic success with Star Wars, there is considerable irony in this. The only thing in THX 1138 remotely like a consumer product is the automobile in which Robert Duvall effects the principal part of his escape from the underground city of Lucas's dystopia. Indeed, it is a nice car, and, as it happens, Lucas himself has always liked cars. We see how much he likes cars in American Graffiti, which is about hotrods and cruising, recalling Lucas's own teenage years in Modesto, California. But, to tell the truth, we should be shocked, shocked to learn that automobiles, so morally excessive and bad for the environment in every way, are the principal big ticket consumer item of American culture. Americans in general love cars. In American Graffiti this culture explodes in all its cluttered, kitchy, vulgar glory, and it is obvious that Lucas loves it also. No blank walls, shaved heads, or suppressed sexuality here. It is all hanging out; and the dreaded police state of Amerika consists of a couple of Keystone Cops who are routinely made fools of by the local hooligans. This is consumerism in all its genuinely anarchistic triumph, the genuine America of the '50's and '60's, worlds away from the grim and moralistic anaesthesia either of the Soviet Union or of American critics of consumerism. Thus we learn that while Lucas's head echoes with leftist clichés, his heart is driving up and down Main Street USA. Thank God for such small blessings, but it would be better if he would get his story straight and learn to better understand and appreciate his own culture and his own country. It is dangerous that this nonsense continues, as far too many American continue to vote for those who love government and want it bigger and more powerful all the time.

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Star Wars: Episode II,
Attack of the Clones

20th Century Fox/LucasFilm, 2002

Todd McCarthy at Daily Variety liked Attack of the Clones a lot better than he did The Phantom Menace, saying that most of what was wrong with the first movie has been fixed up. Not all critics agreed, however; and although the critical response does not seem as political or as nasty as it got about the first movie, it is generally about as ambivalent. If a critic didn't like this movie, however, chances are he/she didn't like Episode I either.

I may be unusual, therefore, in perhaps liking Phantom Menace better than Attack of the Clones. Phantom had, I think, a stronger focus and narrative arc than Clones. The focus was on Qui-gon, a character I liked a lot, and pretty much all the action followed him, or at least followed where he was. Qui-gon's death, which could undo all that was gained elsewhere in the war on Naboo, is then the supreme crisis of the movie, followed by the real denouement, when Obi-Wan killed Darth Maul. There is nothing quite like that in Clones. We do get a big sword fight at the end, where Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus defeats Anakin and Obi-Wan, and then fights Yoda himself, but the result of this is inconclusive. Nor are any of the fights as spectacular as that between Darth Maul, Qui-gon, and Obi-Wan in Phantom. My impression of Clones overall is that it is doing what Lucas says Phantom was doing, i.e. setting things up.

The inconclusiveness of Clones does parallel The Empire Strikes Back, which was not wrapped up quite the same way that any of the other movies have been. But Empire had a striking, indeed stunning, crisis and denouement, when Luke loses his fight with Darth Vader and learns that Vader is actually his father. Clones does not have such a supreme moment and so lacks the punch that both Empire and Phantom had.

The theme of fatherhood is developed and expanded in Clones. Obi-Wan is now Anakin's father figure, as Anakin says himself, but this is clearly not working out real well. Obi-Wan is apparently neither firm enough nor fatherly enough with Anakin:  When Anakin speaks up and contradicts Obi-Wan in front of others, this is not something that should have been treated so lightly or (apparently) forgotten so quickly. Obi-Wan does warn Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) that Anakin is not ready for an assignment on his own, but his concerns are understated and (foolishly) dismissed. We know, however, that Obi-Wan has competition as a father figure:  Chancellor Palpatine (whom everyone will know by now is Darth Sidious, the Phantom Menace himself) is revealed to have been mentoring Anakin on his own, giving comforting and fatherly advice and encouragement. We see the game being played. Anakin is going to reject Obi-Wan as father substitute and go for Palpatine, who will use, not just Anakin's hate, but his love and loyalty to twist him to the Dark Side. The Emperor has no such hold over Luke in Return of the Jedi. This all seems like a good job of building up the manner in which Anakin is going to become Darth Vader. We discover what he can do when really angry, with the massacre after the death of his mother, and we have plenty of examples of his indiscipline and arrogance. A lot of it can just be adolescence, but then, we imagine, he is not going to get the chance to mature properly. This all makes the loss of Qui-gon all the more significant. One wonders about the casting:  Qui-gon was a much taller and more stately figure than Obi-Wan. As it is, Obi-Wan is barely as tall as Anakin, which does not look good either for his presence or his authority.

Among the details getting filled in is the real relationship of "Uncle Owen," who turns out to be Anakin's step-brother because Anakin's mother, Shmi, married Owen's father, Liegg Lars. Owen's association with false or ineffective fatherhood is reinforced by the character of Liegg, who has been unable to protect or rescue Shmi and in fact is disabled, missing a leg, when we meet him. For plot and theme, this all seems to work well enough; but one then wonders, if Anakin knows all about these people, why it was effective to hide Luke Skywalker, under his own name, with people personally known to Darth Vader. Reporters have asked Lucas why in the original Star Wars R2-D2 and C3-PO don't recognize all the people (like Obi-Wan) they have seen before. His explanation is that their memories were erased. But when Uncle Owen buys the two of them, why doesn't he remember at least C3-PO, who was with the family for some years? Why didn't Darth Vader, all the years he was in power, check out what was going on at the Lars household? Perhaps these questions will be answered in a satisfactory way in Episode III, but it will indeed take some explaining, if we are to be satisfied.

The characters in Phantom like Jar Jar and Watto who suggested ethnic stereotypes to the politically correct, or who just irritated people, are still here but in a much reduced presence. Jar Jar appears briefly a couple of times, and not to his credit:  He is duped into proposing emergency powers for President Roosevelt, or rather, I mean, Chancellor Palpatine. The evolution of Palpatine's office into that of Emperor is steady and obvious. Poor Watto seems to have fallen on hard times, since he is plagued by flies as he sits outside his shop, not doing a very good job of reparing things. At least he recognizes Anakin as a Jedi, perhaps from his clothing, while he had been unable to do that with Qui-gon.

What Palpatine is up to is clear enough. He creates enemies of the Republic, which then means that his powers as the Republic's Chancellor need to be increased to deal with them. Then he betrays those he has used. One wonders what would have happened had Darth Maul won his swordfight. As it is, we expect Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus, to be similarly defeated, but he isn't. Only the new 'droid army is defeated, and obviously the whole episode was an excuse for Palpatine to get his own army. Yoda and the Jedi seem insufficiently suspicious about all this. The Clone Army turns up at precisely the moment when Palpatine wants an army, but then the clones were ordered in a way that had "Dark Side" written all over it, with the involvement of this "bounty hunter," Jango Fett, who is clearly up to no good and is associated with the "Separatists." This should be enough to telegraph to anyone that there is a connection between Palpatine himself and the Separatists. But Yoda and the others just seem bewildered, worried, and depressed.

The problem over the "Grand Army of the Republic" (which is what the Union Army was called in the Civil War, by the way) in this movie should remind us of the provision in the United States Constitution for a "well regulated militia," which was defined in law and universal commentary as the "body of the citizenry, trained to arms." In the ratification acts of many of the States, it was stated that a "standing army" was a danger to liberty and ought to be avoided. Now that the United States does have a standing army, and a National Guard that is only what the Founding Fathers would have called a "select militia," whose guardsmen do not even "keep" their own arms, we are confronted with a situation not unlike that desired by Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious. The Republic of Star Wars was evidently no wiser than modern America, not to have the "body of the citizenry" prepared to protect both the Republic and their own Liberty.

Since, as Yoda said in Phantom, there can never be more than two Sith at a time, I think we can say with some confidence that Count Dooku is not going to last. If Anakin is going to become Palpatine's disciple, then Dooku will have to die. My guess is that Dooku will end up killing Amidala. He, and others, have been trying to do that already. When he does, Anakin, of course, is going to go into orbit and, at great cost, will defeat Dooku, whom he will not, naturally, realize is someone working for Palpatine -- who will then be standing by to cash in all of the good will he has been cultivating with Anakin, taking him on as his Sith disciple. Amidala will already have given birth to Luke and Leia, whom the Jedi will then conceal. We get to meet Bail Organa of Alderaan (Jimmy Smits) who will be Leia's adopted father.

The "Separatists" raise a question. Palpatine's determination to prevent them from leaving the Republic is no cause for discussion among the Jedi, so presumably individual planets or systems are prohibited from leaving. But it is hard to imagine how an independent system would have joined the Republic in the first place if it had been clear that leaving would not be allowed. If the United States Constitution had clearly prohibited the States from seceding, it certainly would not have been ratified. If it was argued later, as by Lincoln, the secession was Rebellion, this was the result of a chain of reasoning with no transparent basis in the Constitution but, in fact, with a long history of bitter division in argument over such a characteristic of the United States -- whether it was a voluntary Union of sovereign States, or a single Nation and a single People who are logically and legally superior to the States. In the end, the question was settled by force, not by argument. If the Republic of Star Wars was such an enlightened institution, it is hard to imagine that so central, and potentially explosive, a question would not have been addressed from the first. Since Dooku is described as an "idealist" early in the movie, we are given the impression that the "Separatists," at least publicly, have some kind of high minded principle in what they are doing. We never hear what that would be.

By the time we meet the Separatists, they are clearly up to no good. And if this were in doubt, we only need the list of the organizations that are involved:  (1) our old friends at the Trade Federation, who, betrayed by Darth Sidious, have been duped into working for him once again without even realizing it, (2) the "Corporate Alliance," (3) the "Commerce Guild," and (4) the "IG Banking Clan." What these all obviously have in common is that they are greedy capitalists. So Clones continues and expands the insinuations and disparagement we got about business, trade, and finance in Phantom. In a companion volume I have, Star Wars, Attack of the Clones, The Visual Dictionary [by David West Reynolds, et al., Lucas Books, DK Publishing, 2002], poor Watto is shown with a little caption, "Mind focused on profit," pointing to his head. Since Watto looks a bit like Yasser Arafat, it might be worth reflecting that the world situation might be a lot more peaceful if Yasser Arafat were more concerned about profit than about the things he is concerned with, like blowing people up. Lucas himself does a rather good job of following his own Muse and being filthy rich at the same time. Perhaps it doesn't occur to him that a lot of other people in business would like to be doing the same thing -- while anyone, in business or not, would love to be living in a small kingdom in Marin County, California, as Lucas does.

While the action in Phantom took place on three planets, and drew criticism for being confusing, we get five planets involved in Clones, the new Kamino and Geonosis, as well as Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant. This gets a bit more complicated, but it is really no more confusing than Phantom was. What seems unfortunate is the big action piece at the beginning of the movie, the chase across Coruscant to catch the attempted assassin of Amidala. This is quite nicely done and would be perfectly great and unobjectionable..... if it didn't look like a combination of elements from Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. Now, repeating elements from mythology, or having homages to great moments in science fiction movies, are all great things to do, but this sequence seems less like either of those than like a failure of imagination. At this point, we might have been hoping for something a little more original from Lucas.

While Amidala is not as overwhelmed by her clothing as in Phantom, her clothing still has a role to play. There is a love story here, and she dresses for it. No sooner do we get to Lake Como on Naboo (I thought that was in Italy!) than Natalie Portman's shoulders and back emerge to tempt Anakin. He doesn't need much tempting. Although Amidala then withdraws in guilt from their kiss, later she turns up in a tight leather corsette or bustier (reportedly designed by Lucas himself), not exactly the sort of thing to calm Anakin's passions. This is what we would call "mixed messages." If she were really trying to put him off, it would be stupid to have her wearing this kind of stuff; but, of course, we are given to understand later that she really was of two minds, so it is reasonable that her mind should have been saying, "No! No!" while her wardrobe was saying, "Yes! Yes!" As a love story, it is not exactly going to be up there with Bogart and Bacall. Lucas has never attempted to give us real erotic passion before -- Han and Leia did the love/hate thing. The best that can be said here is that it works well enough. I did find the wedding at the end touching, but Lucas almost spoiled that with the clumsy artificial hand he gave Anakin -- some people in the audience actually laughed at that at one showing I attended [I'd swear that in the DVD the hand looks different].

Whatever the shortcomings of Clones, they can easily be made up by the next movie, so I hope Lucas has some great stuff up his sleeves. But I wonder. I did think that Return of the Jedi was the least good of the original movies:  I tired of those Ewoks a lot faster than I did of Jar Jar; and didn't they have that blowing-up-the-Death-Star thing already in the first movie? Lucas also has the challenge that the ending of the next movie is going to be a really downer, as the bad guys win. A real challenge, to say the least.

While Attack of the Clones grossed over $300 million domestically, and was one of the biggest movies of 2002, its boxoffice nevertheless was beaten out as biggest summer movie of 2002 by Spiderman and fell well short of Phantom Menace, which went over $400 million. This confirms my feeling that Attack is less good and less appealing than Menace. I think that the main fault was basic storytelling. Dooku should have been killed. Although it was nice to see Yoda in combat, this struck many people as somewhat comical -- compared to the flying killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We shall see how well Lucas does on the next movie.

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Star Wars: Episode III,
Revenge of the Sith

20th Century Fox/LucasFilm, 2005

Twenty-eight years ago the original Star Wars, now lamely subtitled "A New Hope" (as "Episode IV") burst on the scene. I saw it shortly after its opening at Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood, with people who had attended my high school 10th year reunion. It quickly became the biggest movie of all time and raised science fiction from a marginal genre to very big ticket status indeed. While Titanic is now far out in front as the biggest movie, the Star Wars movies as a group, now six in all, are its principal competition -- when Titanic actually surpassed Star Wars in box office, George Lucas ran a full page cartoon in Daily Variety showing the Titanic sinking with the cast of Star Wars aboard, in tribute to James Cameron.

With Revenge of the Sith, the epic has now come full circle, and the "prequel" project of Episodes I, II, and III can be evaluated as a whole, and in relation to the original trilogy. Back in the '70's, the original story was that there was to be a continuation of the series into Episodes VII, VIII, and IX; but Lucas seems to be denying that this was ever the plan, and there is no prospect of such movies. Lucas is planning spin-offs into television.

It is extraordinary enough that Lucas, after burning out on the original three movies, returned to the project and has released the last three movies at the same three year intervals (1999, 2002, 2005) as the originals (1977, 1980, 1983). He says that as a whole it is the story of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader; and indeed it begins with his introduction as a child and ends with his death and transfiguration. Since the transition from the early story to the later hinges on the alteration of the likeable Anakin into the Prince of Darkness Darth Vader, Revenge of the Sith carried a heavy burden of trying to make this believable. Fortunately, it does so in a convincing way, and this is among the best news about the movie.

Critics in general were not charmed by The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones. I thought the former was an excellent movie but that the latter, although better received, was dramatically weaker (indeed, it didn't do as well). Now Revenge has generally been well reviewed, and honored as among the best of the series, perhaps the best since The Empire Strikes Back, if not the best of them all. I think it is certainly the best since Empire, and nearly free of the lame moments that occur in all the movies. Negative critical comment has focused on the dialogue and the acting. Well, these are action movies, and one of their principal virtues over traditional science fiction was spare dialogue. No one should be surprised or disappointed if Revenge isn't The Importance of Being Earnest. The dialogue might be sharper, especially considering the emotional load it often must convey, but it does the job. The acting looks fine to me, and if Hayden Christensen sometimes seems stiff or awkward, well, this is rather like what his character is supposed to be. Natalie Portman, who can be a very fine actress (cf. the recent Closer), is not really given much to do apart from being distraught. She does have a fine moment when she tells Anakin that she is pregnant and must wait, in some dread, for his reaction. That she ends up apparently dying of no more than a broken heart gives her an unrealistic death scene that would challenge the greatest actors to do believably. Similarly, Anakin must react to news of her death from within his new Darth Vader suit. Not much of an opportunity for facial expression.

One of the least satisfying situations in all the movies was exactly why it was that the Emperor thought Luke Skywalker could be won over to the Dark Side of the Force. He never gave him very good reasons, apart from vague promises about "the Power" and exhortations to let out his anger and hatred. That Luke could resist this was not so surprising. The greatest challenge for Lucas was to do better this time. He does. With Padme/Amidala pregnant, Anakin begins having dreams of her dying in childbirth. Since Empire we have known that the Force enables one to see a bit of the future, and Anakin's previous dreams about the suffering and death of his mother were horribly proven out in Attack of the Clones. He has no doubt of the reality of what he sees. Lucas then hits upon a perfect trope of Greek Tragedy:  Our hero, in acting to prevent the fulfillment of the Prophecy, does the very things that will bring it about. It also provides the leverage to the Dark Side. Chancellor Palpatine, whom Anakin himself discovers is Darth Sidious, the phantom Sith Lord, holds out the promise that the Dark Side can save the life of Padme. Anakin is already conflicted, since he feels slighted and resentful of the Jedi, while Palpatine has always been friendly to him. Caught in a political tug-of-war, it is unclear to Anakin exactly which side is making the bid for illegitimate power. Palpatine, like Hitler, has fully constitutional power, granted by the Senate. Even after becoming a Sith himself (and not bothering to tell Padme about it), Anakin can still deceive himself that he is loyal to the Republic. In the middle of all that, his desire for whatever power it will take to save Padme tips the balance. But then the power becomes an end in itself, as his paranoia, fed against the Jedi, suddenly turns on her. His assault upon her, reminiscent of a classic scene in the original Star Wars, can be used by the Emperor to blame him for her death.

Anakin falls for the same "kingdoms of the earth" ploy that Satan is supposed to have used with Jesus. To do evil with the best of intentions is the most believable way to twist the good into its opposite. By the time Anakin might have thought better of the matter, or might have found out that Palpatine's promise of immortality was a lie, it was all too late.

The most disappointing thing at the initial viewing of the movie for me was the absence of Liam Neeson doing a cameo as Qui-gon Jinn. I had heard this was going to happen; and when Yoda says that he has been in contact with Qui-gon, we certainly have the place for it. What this does overall for the series is explain why Qui-gon did not disappear when he died while Obi-Wan and Yoda do. We learn that Qui-gon has learned things on the Other Side, contacted Yoda, and how Yoda will teach Obi-Wan about it. Although I've had one student claim that Darth Vader also disappears at his death, when he would not have learned "immortality" (as Yoda puts it) from Qui-gon, Yoda, or Obi-Wan, in fact he does not and is cremated at the end of Return of the Jedi. Perhaps Qui-gon will get his cameo in the DVD version of Revenge. Or something else may be in the works. In the DVD version of Return of the Jedi, when the spirits of Anakin, Yoda, and Obi-Wan appear at the and of the movie, Lucas replaced the older actor who had played the unmasked Darth Vader (the entirely forgotten Sebastian Shaw -- James Earl Jones only did the voice), with (an uncredited) Hayden Christensen. This was annoying, like the way Lucas had Han Solo shoot the bounty hunter in self-defense, instead of just killing him, in the DVD reedit of the original Star Wars (Episode IV). Now, however, it doesn't look like enough. If the spirits of Anakin, Yoda, and Obi-Wan are going to be present at the end of the story, Qui-gon should be there also, especially if he is the one who made such appearances possible. With Lucas periodically fixing up his movies, I suspect Liam Neeson will get his cameo eventually, perhaps in more than one movie.

Like the disappearing Jedi, several loose ends get tied up. While a major revelation of Return was that Darth Vader had lost a hand just like Luke, it was always a little puzzling why he wore that outfit and helmet, or why he would die, as Luke says, if the helmet is removed. Now we really see why. Anakin lost his hand to Count Dooku (Darth Tyranus), but it is Obi-Wan who does the rest of the damage. Anakin loses the rest of his limbs and catches fire from the nearby lava. Consumed with flame, his lungs certainly can have been damaged enough to require mechanical assistance in breathing -- hence his trademark respirator sound. Obi-Wan leaves him for dead, which seems cruel, but then he obviously does not have the heart to deliver a coup de grace. Anakin is saved by the Emperor and artificially rebuilt. Thus we have the reference in Star Wars (IV), when Darth Vader and Obi-Wan duel, that they have done so before. That Obi-Wan wins the duel so decisively is a little surprising, since we otherwise gather that Anakin has been saving his life a lot. Perhaps the Dark Side did not magnify his power as much as he thought.

Indeed, the Emperor himself is defeated in a duel, by Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), who definitely gets his big moment in the series. Arriving to arrest Palpatine, whom Anakin has uncovered as Darth Sidious, Jackson first seems nearly overcome, as the Chancellor rapidly dispatches no less than three accompanying Jedi. He fights back, disarms Palpatine and even deflects the Sith's trademark lightning bolts -- which recoil and wither Palpatine's face to the appearance familiar from Empire and Return of the Jedi. Jackson only falls when blindsided by Anakin. This has to be a satisfying payoff for Jackson's association with the series, even if he does die. There is a nice irony in the scene, when Jackson says that Palpatine is too dangerous to be allowed to live (he is), and Anakin objects, when earlier we have seen Anakin kill a disarmed (literally) Count Dooku just because, as Palpatine tells him, he is too dangerous to be allowed to live.

That proceeding is clearly rather surprising to Dooku (a good-to-see-again Christopher Lee), who is double-crossed by Palpatine -- as Palpatine manages to double-cross everyone he has ever had dealings with. The entire "Clone War" was Palpatine using forces he had organized himself (the "Trade Federation," "Separatists," etc.), to get him dictatorial powers in the Republic and control over the Clone army that he obviously had been the one to order in the first place. Yoda, Obi-Wan, and all the Jedi were leading soldiers who were already instructed to turn on them on command. While Obi-Wan originally told Luke that Darth Vader had "hunted down" all the Jedi, now we see that they are mostly picked off quickly and simultaneously by those supposedly under their own command. Anakin cleans out the youths and children in the Jedi Temple (not bothering to tell Padme about that at the appropriate moment either). Then he finishes off Palpatine's erstwhile allies.

It is nice to see why Darth Vader would not know that he had any children, and Luke could be trusted to his in-laws on Tatooine. Padme/Amidala is buried still looking pregnant. But it would be nice to know when Vader realized that Luke was his son. We know when Luke found out. We also see Obi-Wan pick up Anakin's light saber, to deliver it to Luke years later (to be lost, with Luke's hand, in Empire). Jimmy Smits, briefly seen before, now has a substantial part in Revenge. He helps Yoda and Obi-Wan, and Leia is delivered to him and his wife as her foster parents, at the only moment we ever see Aldaran, before it is blown up by the Death Star in Star Wars (IV). Padme's last words, that "there is good in him," echo what Luke will say about Vader (to the disbelief of all) in Return.

With all the talk about Empire, liberty, Republic, and democracy in the movie, many have wondered whether Lucas is making timely political statements about George W. Bush and the War on Terror. Well, since the story of these events was already substantially planned in 1977, contemporary relevance would mainly be fortuitous. That does not mean it is not now meant. Lucas, although despised by many on the Left for his comic book moralism, for his wealth, and for Jar Jar Binks (seen but silent in Revenge), now has publicly drawn a parallel between Iraq and Vietnam (though since Vietnam is still a communist dictatorship, you would think people would be thinking better of such comparisons). After all, the favorite conspiracy theory of the Michael Moore crowd is that the attacks of 9/11 were planned by the Bush family in league with Saudi Arabia and the ben Laden family (but not, as it happens, Osama himself), just to create the fake war (like Palpatine's) for whose sake Bush can create fascism and conquer the world in the interest of Texas oil companies and other corporations. It is possible Lucas believes something of the sort.

On the other hand, when Padme tells Anakin that perhaps they are on the "wrong side," and that diplomacy should be tried again, we know from the context that there is no "other side," since Palpatine controls both "Separatists" and Republic. It is not clear how this would translate into contemporary terms. Either Islamic terrorists are the anti-globalization good guys, or they are just terrorists. Either way, they don't believe in diplomacy. And while objections have been raised by many to Bush's "Patriot Act," it bears keeping in mind who it was in American history who stayed in office, legally, like Palpatine, far beyond his proper term, and who wielded War powers far beyond those claimed by Bush:  Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is curious, for instance, how the internment of Japanese-Americans is, on the one hand, widely condemned as one of the worst things anyone ever did to anyone, while Roosevelt, who was entirely responsible for it, is never damned with any comparable vehemence as the accountable party. Critics apparently would rather condemn America as such rather than the guy who actually did it. Other wartime Presidents who imprisoned dissidents and silenced opposition, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, are similarly, it appears, excused in fashionable opinion, with such deeds mostly even forgotten. Most importantly, it was Roosevelt who broke through the "enumerated powers" theory of the Constitution (enshrined in the 10th Amendment) to begin claiming unlimited authority for the Federal Government. The Solicitor General of the Clinton Administration finally asserted before the Supreme Court that the Federal Government has "plenary" powers -- i.e. it can do anything. Those who wail about Bush's usurpations now were curiously silent then. Indeed, the harshest charge that the Democrats can imagine leveling against the Republicans is that they want to undo the New Deal. If only it were true.

In American politics, people who complain about Empire and Imperialism are:  (1) conservative isolationists and protectionists, like Pat Buchanan; (2) libertarian isolationists, like Harry Browne; and (3) Marxists. When Michael Moore quotes Lenin and says that Capitalism is a "diabolical system," we know where he is coming from, and it is not to be in favor of little things like "bourgeois" civil liberties, let alone private property and free enterprise. The Leninists on American college campuses have long shown their true colors for any bothering to look. It is unlikely that George Lucas agrees with them very much. But he may well be just the kind of naive "useful idiot" social democrat who will give them material support and comfort without realizing what they are really up to. Much in the Star Wars corpus can be interpreted in that way, as I have previously noted. What we find in Revenge is subtle and ambiguous enough, and so firmly in the context already envisioned in 1977, that no contemporary political inferences are forced. Bill O'Reilly, for instance, claims to see none.

Another contemporary political reference, however, might be when Anakin tells Obi-Wan that either he is with him or against him, and Obi-Wan answers that only the Sith deal in absolutes. This could well be a reference to Bush and the War on Terror. However, every child, not to mention intellectual, knows that Star Wars, if it is about anything, is about absolutes. The Emperor is not someone to understand, negotiate, or compromise with. Palpatine planned evil, conquest, death, and domination from the beginning, and it was not even clear what he was up to until it was too late. If George Lucas was trying to echo trendy appeasement sentiments here, he picked the wrong venue, since his own art contradicts such sentiments. Anyone with an animus to George Bush should instead consider why Tony Blair joined Bush in the war. Blair, perhaps, remembered that Winston Churchill's warnings about Adolf Hitler were dismissed as provocative war-mongering. But there was hell to pay, in ways horribly approaching the literal, because Churchill was ignored.

Finally, we find that one of the best parts, best personalities, and best actors in Revenge of the Sith is Yoda. Still voiced by Frank Oz but now entirely a digital creation, Yoda has his chance to kill the new Emperor and instantly end the threat of the Sith. Without the Emperor, a charred Darth Vader would have been stillborn on his lava beach. We have already seen Palpatine defeated by Mace, and he should be no match for Yoda. Indeed, he is obviously not going to win a stand-up fight. Yoda repels lightning with his bare hands. But when he drops his light saber and falls, why doesn't he get back up, recover his weapon, and keep going? Instead, we next see him crawling away to escape. What was the problem? Well, the plot requires it. If Lucas came up with a good lever to get Anakin to the Dark Side, he missed a device here. Yoda fails, and it is not very clear why, except that he is supposed to. That he fights alone could have been used. Even Yoda might not be able to fight through the Clone army, but we don't get that. If anyone could go head to head against the Emperor and defeat him, it should be Yoda. But in the end, Darth Vader blindsides the Emperor just as Anakin did Samuel L. Jackson.

Correspondents have now suggested that Yoda was unable to defeat the Emperor because real power comes from the Dark Side. Apparently Lucas has suggested this himself. In these terms, correspondents have also suggested that Mace Windu was able to defeat the Emperor because his style of combat drew on the Dark Side, or that he actually was not able to defeat the Emperor, who only pretended to lose in order to precipitate Anakin's intervention. Power being the means of defeating others is an obvious thought, but Lucas has missed the point of, or forgotten, some of the Japanese movies he used to watch. The -- judô in Japanese -- the "yielding" or "submissive" way of Taoism, means not originating an attack, but taking the force of an aggressor's attack and turning it against him (anyone who ever saw Kung Fu with David Carradine would know this). This is marvelously implicit in the form of the light saber, which deals with blasters (the more modern weapon to Han Solo), by reflecting the blast back. That technique was something we barely saw in the original trilogy but is immediately apparent in the Phantom Menace. The light saber even reflects back Palpatine's lightning, as Mace does with his saber -- and Yoda does with his bare hands. However, the thought that Qui-gon and Yoda lose, or Mace wins (or cannot really win), because of the balance of power to the Dark Side undercuts this principle. With the róudào, Yoda should be able to defeat the Emperor, no matter how powerful he is. The more power the aggressor uses, the harder it will be on him. Indeed, Palpatine is withered by his own attack -- it hardly looks like something he is allowing just to bring on Anakin -- while, as such people often do, complaining about an attack on him! I think Lucas has simply forgotten this, even though his art has incorporated some of its principles (doubtless from their Japanese source).

The fatherhood theme of the previous Star Wars movies now is completed. The ultimate father is Anakin Skywalker. We now know that things go very wrong as he approaches fatherhood in the worst way. The "false father" of poor Uncle Owen, let alone Obi-Wan's drawbacks as a father, hardly compare with how bad a father Darth Vader is going to be. He not only assaults his pregnant wife but then contrives not to be there for the birth of his children. Indeed, he doesn't even know they exist. Eventually discovering the existence of his son, he promptly mutilates him, and we are always on the verge of understanding that he is willing to kill him. The series only ends when Anakin awakens to his duty and redeems himself, finally becoming a proper father -- though he dies before seeing Leia (as his daughter -- he has already seen, and tortured her, in the original Star Wars). This ends the tyranny of the Empire and the Sith. If the spirit of Qui-gon joins Anakin, Yoda, and Obi-Wan (though, to be sure, Luke hasn't previously known about Qui-gon), we shall have all the worthy Fathers of the series united on the threshold of a hopeful future -- not to mention more tons of money for George Lucas.

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