Academia and Star Wars

Criticisms — or defenses — of Star Wars’s narrative retreading are misguided.

Source: Making Things Right: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” – The Los Angeles Review of Books

(Spoiler alert: do not read the linked article if you have yet to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)

Yale Professor J.D. Connor has penned a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that is composed of a series of astute observations. There is superb grist here for serious students of film or of the Star Wars universe, and his observations about Disney’s handling of the Star Wars “canon” (and that of the Marvel Universe, which it also now owns) make the piece worth the read.

But it should be read only for the occasional enlightening nugget because, unfortunately, the piece is meandering and confusing. He denigrates critics for impugning (or defending) the film’s narrative repetition of Episode IV, only to say that the problem with the film is that “resonance with earlier versions are far too strong.” He deconstructs the film into a series of patterns, very subtly derides it as typical franchise fare, and explains that what made the first movies unique were sound and special effects.

I am sure there was a point to all of this, that Professor Connor did not spend a big chunk of his Winter break away from undergraduates and faculty politics penning this piece for no reason. I cannot discern it. It seemed aught more than an expository vehicle for the author’s use of the toolkit of scholarly critique.

And this is my problem with so much academic criticism of art, literature, music, and film. Having slogged through five thousand words of deconstruction, we do not walk away enlightened, uplifted, or more capable of appreciating art generally or the piece itself. we are left only with the work (or its creator) in pieces at our feet, looking at each other and saying “okay, now what?”

Great criticism instructs, clarifies, and opens new vistas that allow us to appreciate art, an artist’s oeuvre, or a single work. It provides us with the tools to be discerning. It gives us the wherewithal to judge whether a work is worthy of our time and consideration.

Passable criticism at least serves to tell us whether a work is subjectively worth our time and consideration, and then provides a reasonable case to back up the point.

So if you’re a fanboy or a film student, do read Dr. Connor’s essay. Otherwise, give it a pass.

When a Working Artist Has to Live Off the Grid

Amid a documented rise in the number of homeless in New York City, many of those without homes may be effectively invisible – going about seemingly normal routines and even work without a place to live.

Source: Homeless model: New York’s hidden homeless – BBC News

A fascinating story that poses a question: how long can any city hold itself out as a center of arts and letters when only the most successful artists and scribes can even afford to live there?

Gehry Reconsidered

He is now 86, and shows little sign of slowing down. “I get excited about working on new things,” he said recently. On the list is a shimmering tower that he is creating in Arles, France, to mark a lushly funded private arts complex called LUMA and a series of wriggling slabs for the vast Battersea Power Station in London which is being converted into luxury flats. He is adding to the quarter-mile-long building he recently completed for Facebook in California. And he is supporting arts education in low-performing Los Angeles schools. Mr Gehry is hard on himself, never satisfied that a given design is right. “All I see is what I could have done better. I can’t help it.”

Source: A life in shapes | The Economist

Bridge On the River of Angels

It is also a microcosm of urban crisis — and opportunity. It raises all sorts of questions. What is meant by public space? What is or should be permissible there? What is the solution to the problem of homelessness? What is the best way to help an addict? What is the role of private interests attempting to reinvigorate a public space? Who controls land? What constitutes a power grab? What constitutes commendable, civic-minded community engagement?

Source: Under the Bridge: A Talk with LA Historian and “Under Spring” Author Jeremy Rosenberg – The Los Angeles Review of Books

Los Angeles is Los Angeles no more. Jeremy Rosenberg explains why, and why that is a good thing.

Has Franzen Peaked?

“Purity” feels like an imitation of Mr Franzen’s earlier novels, without the emotional resonance and subtlety. Navigating its illegitimate children, seduction, covered-up crime, international espionage and a secret billionaire feels like being a spectator to, not a friend in, the melodrama. It is testament to Mr Franzen’s talent that he has created his own great works to measure up to. Unfortunately, though, “Purity” does not manage to do so.

Source: Being Franzen’s friends | The Economist

America’s Prima Ballerina Comes Home to California

Returning to the San Pedro stage where she first got her start some 20 years ago, ballerina superstar Misty Copeland quickly broke through the classroom jitters as she began to guide 50 young dancers who had aced a spot in a rare master class with her. – — Donna Littlejohn, LA Daily News

Among the growing number of indicators suggesting that California now rivals New York as an American arts hub is the story of Misty Copeland, the little girl from San Pedro who was discovered at 13 and is now a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre.

Yet Copeland’s story also offers a painful indicator of how far California has to go in its growth as an arts center: the great dancer must still ply her craft on a New York stage.

New York’s continued primacy is by no means inevitable: California has an abundance of venues and a growing number of schools and companies. What it is missing is the kind of sponsors and well-heeled trustees of which the Big Apple has no shortage.

It may well be that California’s efforts to excel would be best applied to other arts, such as film, literature, fine arts, and interactive works. But ballet and the theatre remain areas where, arguably, we could be doing much better.

Why Michael Hiltzik is Wrong About “The Force Awakens”

On Christmas Day, I fulfilled my duty as an American consumer and took the family to see the new “Star Wars” movie. The excursion solved a mystery: Why do so many of the reviews, even the enthusiastic ones, carry an undertone of disappointment? 

Source: Admit it: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ stinks — and here’s why – LA Times

Michael Hiltzik is an outstanding reporter, a man who has won the Pulitzer Prize for proving that forty years after the Payola Scandal of 1959, corruption in the music industry was alive and well. If there is a single reason that we today are not discussing Hiltzik’s work on a daily basis, it is that less than two years after winning his prize Apple introduced the iPod and iTunes, and turned the entire industry inside out. The big music story became disruption rather than corruption.

That is a shame. But Hiltzik is now turning his righteous indignation away from music and toward the film industry, accusing it – in the guise of Disney – of having given up on anything approaching originality, and offering Star Wars: The Force Awakens as Exhibit A.

It is a fun read, especially for those of us who are more amused than irked at attacks on the franchise. But once you slice through Hiltzik’s entirely unoriginal rant about those terrible pop culture tyrants at Disney spoon-feeding us measured portions of franchise tripe (a point articulated better with less indignation long ago by, among others, Mark Harris at, what we are left with is “same movie, different decade.”

Let’s grant Mr. Hiltzik this much: there was a lot about this movie, plot-wise, that echoed Episode 4, known to most of us as the first Star Wars movie. What Hiltzik fails to ask, however, is whether there is a narrative purpose to the repetition. Could it be that the filmmakers and their House of Mouse overlords do not actually think that the audience are idiots? Is there a reason this all looks familiar?

I would suggest that there is, that the writers are setting up a moral point, albeit doing it in a manner that comes near to being patronizing. They are hinting that the reason this is all happening again, in a similar way, is that somehow that in the process of crushing the Empire and restoring the Republic, something crucial, fundamental, was forgotten, and thus we’re having to go through the same stuff again, only worse.

Lest you might think this far-fetched, look, if you will, on recent history. This “fix it right or do it all again” conundrum is perhaps the overarching moral of the 20th Century. Yes, the allies won World War I. But after all the parties were over, we had a world that was playing beggar-thy-neighbor games and a vanquished Germany itching for revenge for the humiliation, all thanks to a group of self-righteous bad losers at the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles. Thus WWII, a far more destructive conflict, arises from the ashes of the vanquished, and for at least the first 30 months of the war looks eerily familiar.

If you want a later example, it could be argued that we failed to learn the lesson of Vietnam – or failed to learn the right ones – and we have thus found ourselves playing referee or B-team in a long season of local insurgencies.

I think J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and all of their co-writers and co-producers get this, are trying to make a narrative point, and that over the next two movies this is going to be driven home: we failed to learn the right lessons last time, here are the lessons we failed to learn, and here’s what we’re going to do to end all of this once and for all.

All it takes to see that is a smidgen of confidence in the filmmakers and an average sense for the rhythm of history, and the courage to use both as a guide. It seems clear that Mr. Hiltzik fortifies himself with neither. But then, I suppose nothing pumps the adrenaline more than tweaking the company’s nose when you live in a company town.

What does El Niño Really Mean for Us?

But besides providing Chris Farley in 1997 with one of his greatest Saturday Night Live skits ever, what do you really know about El Niño? We’ve broken down the science, gathered the best weather research, and talked to seasoned meteorologists to give you the ultimate insider intel on what to expect this winter across the United States.

Source: What Do You Need to Know About El Niño? These 10 Things. – The Weather – Curbed Ski

This is probably the best guide I’ve seen so far to what El Niño will mean to California, and on what conditions.

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