And Then What Happened?

The pull of narrative is very strong. Once I’ve started a story, I need to know what happens next even when the story becomes quite bad or irritating. I stuck with Robert Jordan’s awful, awful fantasy series for six books, which amazes me considering just how wretched they are.

This is all by way of trying to explain why I’m going to see Revenge of the Sith Wednesday night at midnight. I could regale you with tales about how transfixed I was in 1977 and all that (I think I’ll make a separate entry on that at some point) but at this point, it’s just about compulsion. I need to see what happens.

I even watched The Phantom Menace again recently, with the ostensible justification that my daughter might like it, but sort of more on the premise that I might find I liked it better in retrospect. I didn’t. It’s actually worse than I remembered. My daughter only found two things interesting: the pod-race and Darth Maul. Good instincts, yes? Even the very good final lightsaber duel is screwed up by the flabby general stupidity of the whole plot and the intercutting with the other dumb battle scenes. One new thing that struck me is that awful as Lucas’ dialogue, staging, pacing, plotting and everything else is, Natalie Portman is also actively, aggressively bad in the film. You get an overwhelming psychic sense that she was regretting ever having gotten within 10,000 miles of George Lucas. It’s almost as if she’s deliberately sabotaging whatever she can. Even Liam Neeson, who clearly hated the whole thing, puts some effort into it.

With that as the nadir, I suppose “Sith” could actually appear ok in contrast. We’ll see.

This entry was posted in Popular Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to And Then What Happened?

  1. DougLathrop says:

    Did you ever make it through the entire Chung Kuo series? I finally crapped out about halfway through Book 4, or maybe Book 5 (they all sort of blur together). It was frustrating, because I found the concept truly compelling, but I also got tired of wading through another 400 pages in hopes that something would, you know, actually happen.

    I’m going to the midnight showing of Sith, too, with pretty much the same attitude as you: Little or no expectations, but determined to see the whole thing through to the bitter end.

  2. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    An acquaintance of mine suggested going, but taking a bottle of whiskey along. If the movie is any good, then good! If not, then he’ll have some whiskey to drink. I do not drink, but the principle seems sound to me.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Doug! Hey, this comments thing is pretty cool after all.

    No, I didn’t–I gave up in Book 5. That series and Jordan are the two that I can think of that killed my desire to find out what happens next. I think the thing that really does me in is when I feel like nothing is happening, or when events return to some original state after things seem to have happened. At that point you suspect the story exists primarily as a money funnel.

  4. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    Narrative is good, narrative is important.
    Manipulation is irritating.
    I find franchise concepts intensely irritating for that reason. The knowledge that some money-making enterprise is *relying* on me to be a cash cow annoys me.
    Now, if a story is genuinely moving, if the presentation is novel, if, in short, there is *something* of value to be gleaned, then glean I will. Otherwise, if you’ll pardon the expression, “fuck it.”

    Star Wars (1976), or “episode IV” as the revisionists subsequently renamed it, was fun. Now it looks cheap, but back then it was a 9.9 on the agog-o-meter. Empire Strikes Back was genuinely moving and interesting for its introduction of new themes and characters.

    After that, of course, the Machine set in with its determination to extract value. The net results was a series of stinkers. ROTJ at least had *one* good scene in it towards the end (the warring clash between father and son, and the immortal line, “It is too late for me, son.”) And that, I think, is where my sense of obligation ended. I never went on to watch the next two movies (eps I and II, I guess). I couldn’t tell you Maul from Maui or Count Doofu from Tofu.

  5. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    Slipped you at 16:21, TB. No matter — it was a good slip with a clean segue.

  6. Phil Palmer says:

    Hi. Please excuse me for inviting myself into this community.

    It may be only a matter of loose terminology but I wonder if even now we are not quite yet aware of Lucas’ intentions with Star Wars. The first movie was always called “Episode 4”. It is a nice sub-Popperian philosophical point as to whether Episode 1 can be said to have existed before it was made, but I think Lucas intended that it did.

    I remember Lucas saying *at the time* that “Star Wars” being Episode 4 was intended to evoke the sensation of seeing a serial from the middle and having to watch it round again to get the full story, and that he fully intended to make the rest of the serial (whether six or nine, whatever).

    But the point I want to make is that Episode 1 is not a “prequel”, it is the beginning. And that the distinction may seem to be sophistry but it will turn out to be very important. The character of Yoda will completely change, for just one example. I think we only see him now as cute because we met him as a cute eccentric hermit on a remote planet and first impressions last.

    In a few years’ time the six films will be shown together on TV across extended holiday long weekends or whatever, and they will be shown in the order 1-2-3-4-5-6. Young viewers will soon know no other way. Sad old ageing uncles like myself will point out that the world knew these films in the order 4-5-6-1-2-3, that Episode 1 is a flashback or something, but we will be treated with the respect that youth usually accords the old.

    But to get from 4-5-6-1-2-3 to 1-2-3-4-5-6 the entire world needs to do a mental flip. And I think *that* was Lucas’ intention.

    People have tried to talk me out of this conclusion, for example by suggesting that films 4,5 & 6 are too much of their 20th C period to follow the 21st C ones comfortably. I agree there are flaws in the 1-2-3-4-5-6 structure, but I think the conformity of the tv networks will prove too strong for 4-5-6-1-2-3.

  7. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    None of the original ads, or original press articles, or anything in the original movie when it was first released, every said or mentioned anything about the original Star Wars being Episode IV.

    I mean, if you can find definitive proof of that, then I’m wrong. And maybe somewhere lurking in the deep recesses of his brain, Lucas had envisioned backdrop to his story, maybe it was on the back of that Taco Bell napkin outside of San Diego, which he now has locked away in the Revisionist Vault.

  8. Phil Palmer says:

    I saw it in the UK in early 1978 but I doubt it had been modified since the US release. Right at the start it went 20th Century Fox, Long long ago etc, STAR WARS, then Episode IV and a lot more writing on the screen. My friends and I all remembered the Episode IV bit because that was the first surprise. I don’t remember whether the name “A New Hope” was in there or whether that was retrofitted, but the episode IV bit was there for sure.

    If you have researched all the original ads and press articles and there is no mention of Episode IV, then I find that a most fascinating cultural datum on film critics’ abilities to criticise films. Meanwhile I assert, as an eye-witness, that it was there.

  9. Is this the Phil Palmer I remember?

  10. Phil Palmer says:

    I would say yes, but I hate to think what you might remember.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I think most of us remember, or think we remember, an issue of “Starlog” that came out not too long after “Star Wars” around 1977-78, in which Lucas professed that the film was only one part of a nine-part saga, 3 of which preceded the film we’d just seen and 3 of which would come after the “middle three”.

    I also think it’s pretty clear that Lucas had at least some idea of what had happened to Darth Vader and that Obi-Wan had something to do with it–that much is clear. It’s one reason I think “Sith” might not utterly suck–this is the one story that Lucas may have actually had in his head when he made the first film.

    What I think was added, what was not there right at the start, was “Darth Vader is Luke’s father”. But that was added quickly, and it was pretty brilliant.

    So I’m not quite as cynical as Adam, but I think it’s pretty clear that Episode I and II are something of the equivalent of late Season 4 and early Season 5 of Babylon 5–holding actions full of filler and stalling until the narrative gets to the point that the creator of the story had envisioned clearly all along.

    At least you could say that Lucas had an idea of the end he wanted (so did Stracynski). Sometimes writers, especially SF and fantasy writers creating a long series, write themselves into a hole because they don’t have a clear vision of the conclusion. I think that’s what happened with the Chung Kuo series Doug mentioned; it’s also very clearly what happened with Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld books. (Or the series “Twin Peaks”, if you want a non-SF example). Lucas’ first problem is that he didn’t have any real narrative ideas about what should happen before Obi-Wan and Anakin fight. His second and worse problem is that he takes himself too seriously and doesn’t seem to understand his own limitations.

  12. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    I agree that Lucas came out with his six- or nine-part concept AFTER the success, or intimations of success, of Star Wars. It’s almost impossible for we here in 2005 to imagine that Star Wars (1976) *could* have been a gigantic flop, in which case Game Over, I don’t think you would have heard much from the Lucas-Speilberg-John Williams Machine about episodes V through yadda yadda. It’s a bit like Americans trying to imagine the possibility that the war of rebellion of the 13 colonies *could* have ended in stalemate and eventual reapproachment with the Crown. Impossible! But in fact, as late as 1780, Washington despaired of victory and suspected exactly that outcome.

    Anyway. I agree with a few assertions TB made here. First of all, the sheer hubris of trying to retell an ancient mythology. JMS fell prey to this to some extent, at some point in his creative process. I don’t know when exactly, but at some point the Vorlons/Shadows crossed over into Sumerian Order/Chaos gods. Ooops. Five years of network teevee, and all I got was this lousy Babylonian Rip-Off. Gilgamesh, anyone?

    And secondly, not having an ending clearly visualized. Or actually, more to the point, not having a sufficiently fleshed out outline to connect A to Z.

  13. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    Having said that, I’m as curious as anyone to see how the Republic degrades into Imperial nastiness. 9-11-01, anyone?

  14. Phil Palmer says:

    An interesting choice of release date too. (My apologies in advance if the link doesn’t work.)

  15. David Salmanson says:

    First, let me agree let the original Star Wars was most definitely called Episode IV A New Hope in the original title sequence. Second, I seem to remember a story that said the original outline for Star Wars was a twelve page plot summary and Lucas was told to focus only on the middle part because nobody wants to watch a movie about tax policy. Well, that much was right. Nobody rational anyway.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    The one other thing that came out of seeing “Menace” again was that there really was material here that could have been much more resonant if someone more aware and talented than Lucas could have taken a crack at it–if Lucas had stuck to visual design and conceptual staging, and let someone else do the narrative and dialogic work.

    First, most obviously, the story of a democracy falling to internal squabbling and a “man on a white horse”. Yes, yes, I’d say that’s got some new geist-y punch to it.

    But second, the one thing that clearly comes out of these prequels is how screwed up the Jedi are, how much they’ve clearly become kind of hidebound, rules-driven, distant from life. They’re a kind of Buddhist-Catholic screwup–trying to adjudicate matters of life and death when they know little about either. No wonder they get caught up in a grand galactic war so easily, given that they don’t seem to know much else about people, everyday life, and so on, just about how to be badasses with a lightsaber. I’m wondering if Darth Sidious is going to say anything along these lines when he gets to the inevitable “gloating” in Episode III.

    If Lucas had been more alert to this theme–I think this is meant to be there, in the characterization of Qui-Gon Jinn in particular–I think it really could have been interesting. Imagine the first film if it had been more about Qui-Gon trying to complicate Obi-Wan’s view of the Force, the Republic and the Jedi, and then Obi-Wan doing the same with Anakin–quite accidentally opening him up to the influence of Darth Sidious. Much cooler arc of character development, much more potent possibilities in dramatic terms. It’s all there, just murky and muddled by aimless, stupid material.

  17. DougLathrop says:

    I have no concrete proof, but my recollection of the first film’s original run (which I saw in May 1977, and numerous times thereafter that year) is that it did NOT have “Episode IV: a New Hope” in the opening. That was added for the rerelease in late ’79 or early ’80 that preceded The Empire Strikes Back. (I also recall it causing a lot of confusion among the moviegoing public, particularly when Empire first came out. “Episode V? WTF happened to Episode II, III and IV?”) Only then did we start hearing Lucas go on about nine movies and The Hero’s Journey and blah blah blah Joseph Campbellcakes.

    I think the first film was originally intended to stand on its own. (Even now, it’s the only one in the whole series that stands on its own as a movie.) Lucas was riding high after the success of American Graffiti and took the opportunity to make the big budget homage to old movie serials that he’d always wanted to make. It was far more massively successful than anyone expected, and the rest is history–with a little revisionism thrown in.

    As for retelling an ancient mythology, I suspect it’s almost impossible to do so coherently on film or TV given the constraints of the industry. Even a determined effort like Babylon 5 or the Star Wars films will fall victim to the limits of SFX budgets, salary demands and work schedules of actors, last-minute script revisions, and interference by studios or networks. Tolkien could create a fully formed mythos for Middle Earth because he had the luxury of spending half his life on it; neither Lucas nor JMS have been so lucky. (One of the reasons the LOTR films succeed in this respect, where B5 and Star Wars fail, is that Peter Jackson had Tolkien’s material to work with–that, and the fact that he produced all three films in the series simultaneously.)

  18. waxbanks says:

    First off – Hi Prof Burke! You’ve been one of my favourite blog-reading stops for a while now, so I’m glad to see you’ve returned (though I find the WordPress aesthetic a little sparse for my taste).

    A couple of more or less fannish notes, and some very airy speculation:

    ‘Episode IV’ was added to the ‘Star Wars’ crawl, along with ‘A New Hope’, after the first weekend of release. The first film was a redaction of Lucas’s original (too big for a single film) plan to cover the events of Eps IV-VI in a single film.

    I think, from a reading of the script, that ‘Sith’ will be the best of the three prequels by far (I wrote about this at some length on the ol’ blog:, but this is not saying anything too major. I think it’ll also make the other five films much richer by weaving them together in ways both lame (putting major characters together in more or less arbitrary ways) and unexpectedly powerful (the origin story of Vader and the origin story of Anakin himself are linked). From the beginning of the beginning, 1974ish, when Lucas wrote his treatment about Imperial usurpers as ‘Nixonian gangsters’ who solidifed power by ‘fomenting race riots’ throughout the galaxy – check out the ‘Empire of Dreams’ documentary in the DVD set for a quick shot of his handwritten treatment – it seems Lucas has wanted to do Episode III most of all, and I agree that the first two prequels were just steps to the film he’d actually thought through.

    It amuses me to think that Lucas’s interest in Vader’s origin represents both his desire to tell a political fable (good intentions leading to the Empire via a democratic process, &c.) and a weird autobiographical interest. The recent coverage in Wired Magazine has that tone: the independent creator finding that his well-intentioned efforts to shape the world in his image cause pain, etc., so he ends up embracing a darkness that grants him greater power when all he really ever wanted to do was drive (fly) fast and become a master (of his filmmaking domain) without really finishing his apprenticeship.

    The pod race sequence from Episode I is what Lucas was trying to shoot with the car chase scenes in THX-1138 (brilliant, beautiful film BTW). The melancholy of Episode I (it’s underneath the syrup, next to the cheese) is intensified somewhat, to my eyes, by the knowledge that Lucas probably sees a lot of himself in Anakin, and probably used to see a lot of himself in Luke. People insist on yakking about Lucas’s ‘vision’ (‘You have paid the price for your lack of vision,’ indeed!), but I don’t think it’s marketing spiel. He might not be as technically adept as he wants to be (Christ no), but I think the expansive-but-intimate feeling of his best stories comes from his evaluation of himself as caretaker of these worlds.

    As you say, Tim – the prequels aren’t too flattering toward the Jedi. I wonder to what degree that reflects Lucas’s original sense of them – that they were better when they were lost, cooler somehow. Perhaps, to a degree, a reflection on the reception of Lucas’s world itself?

    Oh man I do so hate this job. Cheers.

  19. I’d swear that the first time I saw Star Wars in the theater as a nine-year-old there was no “New Hope” attached. I don’t know when the Episode IV stuff began, but I really don’t believe it was there in the very first release.

    Perhaps an odd place for this very geeky question–I’ve read before that the Star Wars laserdisc (released, what, in 1985 or 86?) included some documentary commentary that contradicts much of the story Lucas tells know about the evolution of the saga. Something about how he’d imagined a sequel to resolve Darth Vader’s storyline, and Luke maturing as a Jedi and taking Ob-Wan’s place, etc. I have no idea if this is true (I never had a laserdisc player, and indeed don’t think I ever known anyone who did), but seeing as how I’ve read about this supposed earlier version of Lucas’s “official” history of the storyline a couple of times before, I thought I might ask if Tim or anyone else knows any better.

    I may see Sith. I watched about 30 minutes of Phanton Menace, fastforwarding through it. Skipped Clones entirely. But then, I confess that I never was much of a Star Wars person.

  20. Lee Scoresby says:

    I share Doug’s and Tim’s experience with Chung-Kuo, as well as Tim’s experience with Jordan. Wingrove, of course, had a really interesting idea. Jordan never had particularly good ideas, he just had a readable synthetic fantasy novel.

    On rewatch, I thought Phantom Menace was a superior film to Attack of the Clones. Both were terribly crafted, but Phantom Menace felt less chock-full-of-irrelevant characters. Because it was, ultimately, smaller in scale, it was less of a trainwreck.

    The truly weird thing (or interesting, if one wants to boost video games as an art form, as Tim might) is that Knights of the Old Republic, a genre RPG for the Xbox, was a much better Star Wars story then the prequels have been. Which goes to show, I suppose, that Lucas should have turned over the writing and directing to someone else.

  21. AlanC9 says:

    I’ve heard a somewhat different story about the Episode IV titles. Supposedly, Lucas always wanted it to be called Ep. 4, but Fox thought it would confuse the audience, so they didn’t let him put that in the credits until after the movie was a hit. So U.S. prints didn’t have it until the 1981 rerelease, but the foreign prints always had it.

  22. KerningPair says:

    Haven’t seen Sith yet, but wanted to defend (yikes!) the prequels, or at least Phantom Menace. Whereas it seems Tim is going for narrative closure, I’m going for that and to see the most widely released avant garde movie since (not counting Eps 1& 2), I don’t know, Lynch’s Dune. (Let’s hope it’s more successful.)

    First off, I’m coming to this from a film-fan perspective. Although I did a lot of sci-fi reading through high school (first sci-fi book, Heinlein’s Red Planet), I’m now pretty much down to William Gibson.

    One of the things that makes Lucas interesting (and frustrating) is his desire to disorient the viewer. I know this seems counterintuitive to say about the director who created one of the great audience-pleasers of all time, but bear with me.

    On the commentary track for American Graffiti, Lucas says that he was experimenting with the soundtrack–treating the music and sound effects and foreground and the dialog as background. I think this produces the mood of the film-wistful, eerie, funny, unsettling–in a way the dialog does not. Now, he had help with the dialog (Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck) so it doesn’t seem as obvious, but I do think it’s one reason why the movie seems timeless despite its extreme specificity of time & place.

    Without slogging through some of his foreground/background reversals in 4-6. (Although think how unusual the opening sequence of Ep4 is–there are no establishing shots, no background, no exposition, no human/living characters to follow for the first 20 minutes! It’s really rather remarkable for a mainstream movie and not that different conceptually from THX 1138 (although it’s in a different tonal universe).

    Anywaywherehow, in Phantom Menace I believe he’s foregrounding the nonnarrative and backgrounding the story (If only there were a soundtrack-&-effects-only track on the DVD). I believe he’s really telling the story through these extranarrative devices.

    The problem is that he doesn’t have the outside writing to help the audience who have less esoteric expectations. I find it pretty engrossing and one of the underlying thrusts of the movies–the breadth and variety of existence under the Republic versus the imaginative poverty of the Empire. (A nice thing about this view is that it fanwanks away the problem of the 4-6’s predigital stripped-down look.) It also ties into the whole Jedi/natural world association and a few other things I haven’t completely thought through.

    I do disagree with Tim’s original essay (way, way up above) when he praises the way, way too long pod race (that’s just Lucas’s personal indulgence in speed, IMHO) and denigrates the climactic sequence. The cutting together of the four separate story lines I find unbelievably complex and compelling, especially the way all four lines hit the same narrative points in sequence without at all seeming repetitive and while the story as whole gains momentum in spite of the fragmenting storylines. They all hit bottom at the same time, then Amidala (yes!) (not Anakin!) turns the tide. You may guess that again, unlike Tim, I find Amidala the best part of the prequels. I think her Kabuki-like performance with the awesome monotone delivery really ties into what Lucas is doing in the foreground/background inside/outside narrative. I can’t defend his choices on casting Anakin, except to say I believe he was newhoping he’d hit Mark Hammill gold again.

    I just hope he has the courage to follow through and make it Amidala’s AND Anakin’s tragedy in Sith. Although his exclusion of the major female chracters from the American Graffiti coda (from the commmentary “it just didn’t look right formally to have more than four people up there” or something) doesn’t bode well.

    I guess I really should wrap it up. Thank you, good night! Please tip your waitresses.

Comments are closed.