Ask me: quite a lot about Star Wars, a little bit about jazz, cheese and annoying siblings...

>> Monday, October 18, 2010

We're still going through the "Ask Giant Midgets mailbag, and I think today we're going to do a little bit of a grab-bag response, so to speak. Normally, I'd like to take each questioner's questions individually, but looking at the next ones in the thread I see that I probably answered Michelle's next question yesterday by accident and Matt's questions span the universe from our moon all the way through time and space to a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Michelle's first question is:

Miles Davis or John Coltrane?

I didn't really mean to answer this in yesterday's post about blues versus jazz, but the answer is so closely tied to my discovery of jazz that I think I covered it anyway. Coltrane was among the first jazz artists I dabbled with, but his work didn't quite blow me away, or at least not the way I expected it to. I mean, it was obviously brilliant, but I didn't have some, I don't know, altered mood or mental state listening to it, the way I would have a decade later when I finally discovered Miles Davis. And it's possible that that was a function of being older and wiser, to be sure, and more open to different kinds of musical things.

But I also think Miles thought about music on a different plane than 'Trane did. I don't want to take anyway from 'Trane with that, but the difference between Coltrane and Davis may be the difference between a great player and a great coach, if that makes sense (or it may be an inadequate metaphor, because Davis was certainly a brilliant player). Maybe the difference between a very good chess player and a Grandmaster might be apt. Anyway, I don't think I've ever had the sense with Coltrane that he saw the whole game from up above somewhere and knew what the next dozen moves would be, versus the sense you sometimes get listening to Davis that the whole structure of a composition--even stuff that his bandmates haven't improvised yet--it in his mental eye and what those fellow musicians will create is something that he knew they would create (and that they had to create, because he willed their jams into existence in some mystical fashion).

Michelle also asks:

Why do guys always treat me like a pesky little sister?

Stop touching me.

Moving along....

Matt has two questions for Giant Midgets. The first is pretty easy:

Who would you rather have for a roommate, Jar Jar or Wicket?

One of those creatures is a plush, cute, intelligent, curious animated teddy bear who makes inoffensive warbling noises and will keep out intruders with effective use of his spear and various jury-rigged traps. The other is an irritating, clumsy, loudmouthed frog who was pretty much directly responsible for Senator Palpatine becoming Emperor. Do you really need to ask?

I never found the Ewoks to be offensive the way some Star Wars fans do, and I disagree with the common reflexive assessment that the Ewoks were invented solely to sell toys. Not that I think the truth says much for Lucas, to be equally, brutally frank: I think the Ewoks were clumsily handled and reflect a stunning imaginative failure on Lucas' part. (And, I hate to add, may reflect a certain, well... I don't think "racism" is quite fair, but I think you might say "racial shallowness" of the same sort that would result in some of the same offensiveness you see in the prequels.)

To understand how the Ewoks (a) weren't invented to sell toys and (b) reflect a complete imaginative failure on Lucas' part, I think you have to go way back in time to the 1970s, when Lucas was fumbling around with the few pages of notes that would eventually become the "Star Wars Saga." The best place for background is almost certainly Michael Kaminski's The Secret History Of Star Wars, which used to be available online as a free PDF, though that seems to have been pulled now that he actually has a hardcopy available for sale (you can still read essays and articles at Kaminski's site, and you might be able to find the PDF if you dig around the Internet). I'll sort of summarize, if I could; some of this is Kaminski and some of this is me, and for a few points I've added Wikipedia and IMDB links, but here we go....

Back in the early 1970s, George Lucas was a protégé of Francis Ford Coppola, right? Which didn't work out too well for Coppola, because, unfortunately, the first big project Coppola produced for his independent American Zoetrope studios was Lucas' THX 1138, which was a huge flop and pretty much drove Zoetrope out of business and resulted in Coppola having to do a bunch of studio stuff he didn't want to do, like adapting a schlocky Mario Puzo novel into a feature film. (Okay, so maybe that story sort of had a happy ending after all--at least for the rest of us.)

So, anyway, while Coppola is trying to make good on the fact that his favorite son, Lucas, drove Coppola's fledgling indie studio right into the ditch, Lucas is working on developing various script proposals for Coppola, including developing a John Milius screenplay for a Vietnam War comedy Coppola wanted to produce. Yes, kids, in an alternate universe somewhere, Apocalypse Now is a M*A*S*H-style war comedy directed by George Lucas.

In our universe, however, things didn't work out that way. Lucas, perhaps partly egged-on by his wife, Marcia, goes to work on a feel-good Americana movie, American Graffiti, while Coppola makes the Godfather films and then takes over Apocalypse himself (which then goes off the rails, as I think everybody knows). But in the meantime, Graffiti and Apocalypse Now aren't the only things on Lucas' plate: as everybody also knows, Lucas was bouncing around ideas for a Big Space Epic. Evidently, Lucas first tried to get the rights for Flash Gordon, but when that fell apart he started working on treatments and eventually scripts for his own amalgamated-through-his-Id SF serial+samurai film+western+muscle cars+Vietnam+WWII fighter movie+kitchen sink extravaganza.

Now, notice the word Vietnam in there? This is why all that Apocalypse Now stuff turns out to be so significant. Lucas has been working on this Vietnam War movie, and beyond that, like a lot of Americans and a lot of creative and intellectual types (and regardless of how smart or dumb you personally think Lucas is, he's in that "creative and intellectual types" caste), Lucas is wondering how a Third World nation beats a Global Superpower. This is, I'm afraid, where we get into that sort of, agh, hate-to-say-it racial ditchwater, because of course what a lot of people see (or saw) when they look (or looked) at Vietnam was a bunch of, well, "primitives" beating American might, as opposed to seeing a bunch of French-educated intellectuals with home soil advantage and decades of military experience as insurrectionists (having successively and successfully fought challenged Japanese invaders during WWII and then the French colonial forces in the '50s) and massive infusions of Soviet foreign aid beating an overextended, morale-challenged, nation in the throes of domestic strife and economic confusion. But it is what it is.

The point re: Star Wars is that it seems Lucas folds his Vietnam thinking into the project by introducing this whole storyline involving these primitive forest creatures fighting off the Empire, who are eventually joined by the heroes and are eventually victorious. And these primitive forest creatures, present in early Star Wars drafts, eventually evolve over the course of the drafts into Wookies. (With, perhaps, some eventual help from a John Shoenherr illustration for a George R.R. Martin story in Analog.)

Now, when Star Wars finally gets greenlit by, it seems kind of apt, Alan Ladd, Jr., at Fox, Lucas is sitting there with tons of material and approval to do one two-hour film. Apparently he's been bouncing around various ideas for a franchise with friends, and American Graffiti has been a humongous success and vindication for him, but the truth is he doesn't know if Star Wars is going to be another Graffiti or another THX 1138. So he culls his notes for all his best ideas and sticks them all into one movie. The Wookie War gets pulled, but he keeps one Wookie... and since there's no reason to make the Wookie a primitive, suddenly the Wookie is the ship's co-pilot for no terribly good reason. When you look at the early drafts to the extent they're available, at the preliminary concept art, and at the research Kaminski's done, this is all really typical of Lucas at this stage: I mean, lots of stuff comes down to "I really like this but there's no space for it so I'll just have one" in what will eventually be A New Hope--no room for legions of Jedi, so we'll just have Ben Kenobi; no budget for everybody to have a lightsaber, so it's just Ben, Luke and Darth; no room for lots of Starkiller brothers and sisters, so we'll just have the one (and rename him Skywalker); no room for a Wookie civilization, but this one can be a sidekick, etc.

Of course, Star Wars is a huge success. Nothing like it ever before and probably nothing will ever be like it again. Lucas starts talking about dozens of sequels, then a half dozen, and then the first filmed sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, is kind of a disaster behind the scenes. (Before the release of Star Wars, and not sure if it will succeed or flop, Lucas drafts a different low-budget sequel that ends up appearing as an Alan Dean Foster spin-off novel of dubious canonicity when The Empire Strikes Back becomes the proposed follow-up.) So Lucas says he's making a trilogy. And how is he going to wrap things up?

Well, what he does, is: he goes back to that old Star Wars script from the '70s and adapts the last act he compressed and streamlined into the last act of the 1977 film--space Vietnam with primitive warriors fighting the Empire, attack on the evil battlestation--and adds a first act wrapping up the cliffhanger at the end of Empire. Except he still has a problem, and this is where his failure of imagination truly becomes complete: he already has Wookies, and they fly spaceships so they can't be primitives, can they? So what does he do?

He makes them five feet shorter and bumps the "e" off the end of their name and sticks it on the front. "Wookie" becomes "ee-Wook." That's it. The Ewoks are midget Wookies. And their ridiculous taking-down of the Empire with rocks and pointy sticks is Lucas' version of Apocalypse Now. I shit you not.

Now, obviously the marketing opportunities presented by Ewoks are self-evident. No doubt, Lucas was thinking "and the toys'll sell" when he knocked five feet off a Wookie and, jeez, can you even really say "renamed" it? He'd been selling Wookie toys for years at that point. But the reason Ewoks weren't invented as a marketing opportunity, in my view (and I think Kaminski would agree), is that he'd invented them a decade earlier as a Vietnam parable way before he'd signed a deal with Kenner or even signed a deal with 20th Century Fox.

Which in some ways is worse. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Lucas was a whore in 1983, when he made Return Of The Jedi. I disagree, but the root of my disagreement would be that Lucas was, for all intents and purposes, creatively completely tapped-out by 1981, after working on drafts for The Empire Strikes Back with Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan and Raiders Of The Lost Ark with Kasdan, Philip Kaufman and Stephen Spielberg. Everything since, he's been running on fumes. It's like being dead, only you can hear it when they stop saying nice things about you.

And after all that, we still have one more question.

Exactly how much cheese is too much?

We may have indirectly answered the question, supra: the cheese is too much when in your third film you're just rehashing your old and abandoned ideas from the first film. But in terms of the foodstuff: the cheese is too much when you vomit. Then, and only then, do you know you've had too much cheese; the problem, of course, being that until you reach that point you haven't had enough cheese. Consequently, we find that there is a cheese paradox equivalent to the bacon paradox: there is no such thing as "enough" cheese (or bacon).

Thanks for the questions, gang!


John the Scientist Monday, October 18, 2010 at 3:37:00 PM EDT  

"But in terms of the foodstuff: the cheese is too much when you vomit. Then, and only then, do you know you've had too much cheese;"

I have witnessed this very phenomenon in my own house recently. o.O

mattw Monday, October 18, 2010 at 11:24:00 PM EDT  

And here I always thought Ewoks were just teddy bears come to life.

Seth Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 3:48:00 PM EDT  

"...a bunch of French-educated intellectuals with home soil advantage and decades of military experience as insurrectionists (having successively and successfully fought challenged Japanese invaders during WWII and then the French colonial forces in the '50s) and massive infusions of Soviet foreign aid beating an overextended, morale-challenged, nation in the throes of domestic strife and economic confusion...."

Strangely, this makes me feel a lot better as an American. I would hate to think we were beaten by Ewoks.

Eric Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 4:01:00 PM EDT  

They were worthy opponents, Seth, and we weren't the first world power they took on and trounced. Definitely not Ewoks....

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