The Fear Of 13

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What To Expect When You’re Expecting To Die

*Spoilers are to be expected*

“Telling stories is telling lies.”

-B. S. Johnson

The Fear Of 13 is a documentary about a man called Nick Yarris who lied to the police in order to bargain for his innocence and ended up spending 23 years of his life on Death Row for a crime he did not commit. I did not know this upon entering, but the entire film is a monologue delivered by a seated Yarris occasionally intercut with atmospheric shots. This threw up some interesting considerations: Would Yarris be agreeable enough company to spend 96 minutes with? Would this true story be compelling enough to sustain such a simple format? Would the story be intriguing enough to make viewing worthwhile? Some of these questions are answered below.

Dramatic Monologue

There are a couple of things about the way Yarris speaks that I found strange at first. Text at the beginning states his story has been independently verified, but although he is incredibly articulate, his mannerisms seem affected rather than honest, full of exaggerated gesticulations and onomatopoeic words combined with realistic sound effects to really assert their impact. It makes you distrustful of his story, as if he is an actor rather than a chronicler of the truth. To be clear, I am not doubting the veracity of his story: I am just saying that its presentation made it seem more like the performance of a dramatic monologue than a documentary. I do not know whether this is the result of Yarris’s personality or any direction he may have received, although as I will explain later, I suspect the former.

This is partly due to its non-chronological structure. It begins with him talking about being on Death Row but does not reveal why he is there until much later in the film than I expected. The explanation for why he became the kind of person he did is not given until so late in the film that one of my cinema-going companions fell asleep before the revelation. I found this to be the most telling problem of the film, as it transpired to be so pivotal to the story and Yarris’s psychology that its introduction earlier on would have done much to eliminate the veneer of pretense.

The other jarring component of his soliloquy is the sentimentality he displays when he talks about falling in love, a section which is full of  the expected clichés. So if all this is true, why does he seem like this?

A Modern Don Quixote

One of the things that Yarris did while in prison was read 1,000 books in 3 years. This is an astonishing feat but he had the time. He read novels and law books, but was especially fond of what he calls ‘tales’. At first I thought this would be a story about how his reading led to his freedom, the same way Frederick Douglass’s learning to read enabled his emancipation from slavery, and there is an aspect of that when he notices a newspaper article about the new technology of DNA testing, which eventually leads to his release. I even think this is probably the story the filmmakers thought they were making. I think the documentary, however, reveals a less obvious truth, though perhaps unintentionally.

The perils of literary overindulgence as subject matter for artistic scrutiny is at least as old as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and though Yarris did not suffer that eponymous character’s severe delusions, what came across for me was actually a little more insidious. Yarris learned from reading all those ‘tales’ not how to lie, but how to present his story. This is why he seems like an actor: He has learnt how to be his own narrator.

The above quotation from B. S. Johnson is perhaps an oversimplification of the problem, which is a predicament many documentary-makers find themselves in: Picking and choosing what to tell and what not to is necessary to make a coherent story, but also runs the risk of misleading the viewer. I do not think that Yarris or the film intentionally mislead. I think they are trying to tell a true story of injustice and victory over insurmountable odds and they largely succeed. If this had been all that comprised the film, I would not have thought about it as much.

Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave

The final hand the film plays is a traumatic experience Yarris had when he was young. It happened when he was 13. At least, I am pretty sure it happened when he was 13 because that would explain the title, but I may be wrong. It was this that taught him how easy it was to lie and how hard it was to go back once the lie had been told. It is as if the filmmakers want you to see the disclosure of this revelation as his final salvation, his overcoming of the fatal flaw of deceit by telling his most painful truth.

Conclusion

What the revelation left me with was the uneasy feeling that our experiences unavoidably shape who we become as people. He may have escaped the death penalty, but what he cannot escape is the aura of dishonesty that seems to permeate his presentation of a true story. I will say again, and it is worth repeating so my argument is not misconstrued as an accusation of falsehood: I am not saying he is lying. I am saying that he portrays himself in a manner that is consistent with someone who has spent the majority of his life lying, even when he is telling the truth. This is perhaps the kind of unexpected lesson only achievable in the documentary format. Fictional stories would most likely have taken great pains to have actors imitating someone who portrayed themselves in a more realistic fashion, as in the British version of the sitcom The Office for example, in order to make their story more believable. Because the filmmakers allow Yarris to tell his own story, however, a more interesting character portrait is revealed, one of someone who has matured from outright lying to moulding the truth into a story.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

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The Force Awakens A Fatigue In Me

*Spoilers are to be expected*

“Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”

– Lewis Mumford

I have a love/hate relationship with Star Wars. While I appreciate the great story, the melding of a wide array of influences, (such as westerns, old sci-fi serials like Buck Rogers, and Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”,) and the ground-breaking special effects, I dislike the repercussions of its probably unrivaled popularity: Making movies to sell toys and tie-in products and the birth of the blockbuster franchise, which began in what transpired to be its embryonic form with the release of Jaws, and is now best encapsulated by the current spate of movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Obviously these flaws are not the fault of the original films, any more than an overplayed song is at fault for becoming irritating or an original voice is responsible for the myriad imitations it inspires, but the result is a conflicted review.

An Alphabetical Survey of the Major Characters

BB-8

BB-8 was a no-brainer of a character to create. The droids everyone can name from Star Wars are R2-D2 and C-3PO. Their appearance in the original trilogy as a humorous double act is a great counterpoint to the seriousness of the main story arc. A few people are irked by the campiness of Anthony Daniels’ gold protocol droid but most people are fond of R2-D2. There were no significant new droids in the prequels because these two featured. There is a minor character at the beginning of The Phantom Menace who is a protocol droid like C-3PO but silver. TC-14, as she was called, was so minor that I had completely forgotten her existence until watching the beginning of Episode I again. She does not feature enough to display any noteworthy differences to C-3PO aside from implied gender. Since the prequels had already shown a new series of protocol droid, it made sense to create another class of astromech droid. It also made sense to make the droid a major character since TC-14 was so minor.  When this new, small, cute droid rolled on screen in the trailer, I was positive.

The problem is that BB-8 is just R2-D2 2. There is nothing about the character that varies from R2-D2 except superficially: The two major differences are the lighter attachment, which the new droid uses to give a thumbs up, and the new round look. BB-8 sounds like R2-D2, projects images like R2-D2, and is even shown in the co-pilot seat of a starfighter like R2-D2. There is no role in the film that BB-8 fulfils that could not equally have been accomplished with R2-D2. Although it could be argued that the story required both of them, I would counter that it could quite easily have been rejigged to eliminate BB-8 completely and just have R2-D2 as the sole keeper of the map with few repercussions. More droids are a good idea but droids with different functions and personalities would have been preferable.

Obviously this is the first part of a trilogy and there is scope for them to rectify this. The original droids do not get much screen time with BB-8 (except R2-D2 when powered down). It is probable they will expand upon the relationships between them as the story progresses. The idea of having BB-8 as a kind of adopted child figure for C-3PO and R2-D2 appeals to me. It would change them in a way that most partners are changed when they become parents: It would give them a newfound responsibility and make them think twice about entering into the dangerous situations they often find themselves in. BB-8 as a baby R2-D2 would also fit the familial themes of the franchise. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a family of robots, think of what could be done with R2-D2 as a mentor to BB-8. That would also fit the theme of the series. For now though, colour me unimpressed.

Finn

Finn is another example of the film actively rebelling against the prequels. The Stormtroopers are no longer all clones of Jango Fett, as revealed in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He is also the best idea in the new film: A Stormtrooper who does not want to be party to the horrors they perpetrate.

The problem is that that is all he is. Even though he has spent his whole life being trained to be a Stormtrooper, he immediately realises no good can come of it. There is no struggle. He is just automatically a good guy. They could have made him interesting, but instead they chose the simplest version of his character’s journey possible.

Also, if it is so clear to him that what he is being ordered to do is evil, why are all the other Stormtroopers such willing subordinates? There is no explanation. This is lazy storytelling. I acknowledge that this may be elaborated on in the next two films, but its omission from Episode VII made it a poorer experience.

There is also the question of how someone who works in sanitation can help destroy the Starkiller Base. It is true that he had blueprints but that seems a strange piece of apparatus for such an occupation. Think about this: Would the cleaning staff at your company have access to information allowing them to foil its business strategy? He clearly had more duties than his job title suggests though, otherwise he would never have been chosen to participate in the destruction of the village on Jakku. This is a case of what appears to be a throwaway line seriously confusing the plot.

Han Solo

Han Solo was one of the better features of the new film. They captured the essence of his character. Some people have been saying it is Harrison Ford’s best performance in years. Others say that is not much of an achievement as he has been phoning it in for a while. Personally, I was very happy to see him slip into the guise of a familiar character.

His death, however, could have been more surprising. Putting aside my pre-viewing suspicions that Harrison Ford would be unwilling to participate in all of the new trilogy’s installments and that the reported paycheck of £23 million would be an unsustainable outgoing, there are also diegetic clues.

Firstly, he appears so early in the film that you know he is getting screen time for a reason. This alone is not enough to indicate what is going to happen. Unfortunately, his parting conversation with Leia is what seals it. It is a conversation in which both participants will leave with no regrets and having said everything they wanted to say. As far as I can recall, it has none of the usual mutual agitation and animosity that has marked their relationship. They have become at peace with each other. That was the point when I knew he was a goner. When he confronted Kylo Ren on the catwalk across a circular pit you knew he was going to die because that kind of location is where such plot twists always seems to happen.

Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren is the new villain, the son of Han and Leia. He has a mask reminiscent of that which belonged to Darth Vader. In my opinion it is too similar. Darth Vader’s image in popular culture is so pervasive and iconic that it is easy to forget that he would have been seen as new when the original Star Wars was released. The Phantom Menace had Darth Maul, who looked completely different to anything the films had seen before. Obviously the mask is a homage to his grandfather and works in context, but the new movie relied too much on his predecessor’s image for its inspiration. However, these are minor concerns as they only pertain to his appearance. There is a bigger problem.

There are hints that he is supposed to be a conflicted character but he does not show it enough. There is one scene where says he can feel himself being called to the light side. He just says it, ignoring the classic rule of filmmaking: Show, don’t tell. There is one scene where Snoke asks him whether he will be able to commit to the dark side and he assures him he will. Using a separate character to question his loyalty suggests there is bound to be some internal conflict, but Kylo Ren does not show it. The third and final instance when he demonstrates that he might be redeemable is when he confronts his father, but this could easily have just been a ploy to get closer to him. He does not murder him immediately though, so there may be some struggle. Of course, he could just be allowing him the courtesy of some last words. These are the three points when his internal conflict is referenced and none of them includes an actual portrayal of it.

Kylo Ren is also the wielder of one of the only concessions to the innovations of the prequels: a new type of lightsaber that is not just a different colour. Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber was unseen before the prequels and Kylo Ren’s crossguard lightsaber was unseen before the new film. This was a nice touch, but a rare occurrence of originality in the film, even if it was a sort of counterfeit originality. Of course, the two previous trilogies both showcased new colours of lightsaber as well: Green in Episode VI and Mace Windu’s purple one in the prequels, but that kind of cosmetic change is hardly a major issue.

Poe Dameron

Poe, being an excellent pilot without the aid of the Force, has been compared to both Han Solo and Wedge Antilles, both of whom are from the original trilogy. In my opinion he is more akin to Wedge because of his military background. There is no equivalent character that I can recall in the prequels. This is a case of imitating a character archetype from the originals instead of varying them enough. There is not enough information on him in the film, barring his close relationship with BB-8 and newfound friendship with Finn, to really know whether he will prove to be unique. The problem may have arisen because the movie is only a third of the story, as with BB-8, but I think the parts should be able to stand on their own without the necessity of watching all of them.

Rey

Rey is an orphan living on a sandy planet who turns out to be Force-sensitive, a natural pilot and good with machinery. If you are a fan of the franchise, you will appreciate the callback. If you are not, you will wonder if this was a story that really needed to be told again. Personally, I have no problem with such echoing provided the parallels are meaningful, which is something we are left wondering following The Force Awakens.

Obviously there is one major difference: The new protagonist is female. She is also a strong character. She throws down with Unkar Plutt’s goons when they try to steal BB-8 from her and comes out on top. She does not need saving. She is also able to use the Force without any training. This is reminiscent of the ‘Jedi reflexes’ exhibited by the young Anakin.

She collects scrap metal. I initially thought this was a bit of a letdown considering that Anakin possessed the ability to make and mend pods and Luke can fix droids. However, she is later shown being able to fix the Millennium Falcon, which made up for it, and it made sense that someone who has spent their entire life retrieving ship parts and such should have some knowledge of how they work, although her knowing more about that ‘piece of junk’ than Han Solo did raise an eyebrow.

They have also not explained her origin, though given all the similarities mentioned above and her visions on coming into contact with Luke’s lightsaber, it would be a brave move to suggest she is not in some way part of the Skywalker lineage. If she is Luke’s daughter, will she become tempted by the dark side like her grandfather Anakin and her cousin Ben? That would make for a more compelling narrative, but since that is the story of the prequels, it is unlikely to happen. Episodes VII, VIII and IX will have a protagonist who is good because the prequels had one that was bad.  If they had been released in chronological order, the possibility of an allegiance switch would have been much greater.

There is a chance that she is Kylo Ren’s sister and future episodes will be about the conflict between light and dark being played out between siblings rather than the familiar territory of across generations. This could work, and would echo the hidden relationship between Leia and Luke, even more so if the latter turns to the dark side, but it worries me that each of the two characters could easily become 2-dimensional allegories for the different sides of the Force, as opposed to the 3-dimensional Luke and Anakin with their internalised attempts at reconciling them.

There are also theories that she is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter. This would be a genuine surprise in a new trilogy that has so far rehashed much of the original.

A New New Hope

Even though the plot is different from A New Hope, there are too many similarities. Apparently I audibly sighed when they explained how to bring down the Starkiller Base, which was three times the size of the Death Star, if I recall correctly. If you want to know what all the similarities are, you can easily find a list on many other sites. Say what you like about the introduction of Jar Jar Binks, the pod racing sequence and Darth Maul wielding a double-bladed lightsaber, but at least they were trying something new. After watching The Force Awakens I felt as though I had been penned in to a small corner of the galaxy even though I knew the plot spanned a much greater area. Some people will obviously like this and feel as though they have returned to their home.

The politics of the film were confusing and raised lots of questions for the casual fan like myself. After the success and celebrations at the end of Jedi, how come the Republic seems so ineffective? How come they are the underdogs when the First Order is an upstart organisation? It made sense when the Empire made the Death Stars because they were an Empire, but how did the First Order, a group of rebels, create a weapon bigger than those? These are just a few of the many dangling questions that made it difficult to follow and become invested in.

As an aside, the rathtars were a nice addition to the bestiary of weird creatures that have tormented various protagonists. The mistake that leads to it was similar to that which leads to the exogorth encounter in Empire, as they are both the result of trying to find a safe haven only to discover they have gone ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ as the saying goes, but does not feel derivative. This is contrast to Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Jar Jar purposely going through the ocean abyss of Naboo and nearly getting eaten by an opee sea killer, which is then consumed by a sando aqua monster. Here they go from being safe to being in peril and then safe again, a completely opposite sequence of states.

A Touch of Evil

I thought the distinction between good and evil was too clear cut. I have heard arguments that this is one of the flaws of the original films, but they had Han shooting first and Lando changing sides. The Phantom Menace had Qui-Gon Jinn playing fast and loose with the Jedi Code, much to the chagrin of his apprentice Obi-Wan. In the new film there are none of these shades of grey excepting the previously mentioned and poorly executed Kylo Ren.

Recycled Settings

This one is just a minor bugbear. It annoyed me that Jakku appeared to be a desert planet just like Tatooine. The original trilogy had a great variety of locations aside from Luke’s home: Hoth, the forest moon of Endor and Cloud City to name a few of my favourites. The prequels continued this tradition: The Phantom Menace had the underwater city of Otoh Gunga, Attack of the Clones had the ocean planet of Kamino and Revenge of the Sith had the volcanic world of Mustafar. The Force Awakens is so in thrall to the original trilogy it even has a new cantina scene. There is a whole galaxy to explore, so why do so many of the new locations end up looking the same?

Conclusion

Now we come to the quotation at the beginning of this article. Obviously it applies to Kylo Ren’s acceptance of the dark side replicating that of his grandfather Anakin, but it also applies to how the film has chosen to oppose features of the prequels and, in my opinion, become too similar to the original trilogy.

In my opinion the prequels are closer to the tradition of Star Wars. Ironically, they achieved this by creating  very different settings, characters and action sequences, along with twists and changes that surprise us, in the same way the original trilogy did. This should be expected since Lucas was still at the helm.

Unfortunately fan reaction to them was so vitriolic that I suspect any attempt to create something as startlingly original was going to be deemed too risky by producers. It feels like the new film has been made to satisfy the fans and capitalise on their nostalgia rather than tell a new and interesting story. There is even an argument to say that, since Lucas no longer has control, The Force Awakens is canonised fan fiction, a new New Hope for a new generation, one willing to represent women and people of colour as active protagonists. I am a proponent of diversity in film. It should apply not just to representation, but plot as well.

The prequels expanded the universe without losing sight of the major players. The Force Awakens, along with the accompanying de-canonising of hundreds of spin-offs, feels like it has restricted it, even if you look at the new characters, locations and stories and know that they are different. It makes the case that there is only a certain type of story with familiar and repetitive features that fans will accept. That is why I found The Force Awakens sort of tiresome and difficult to enjoy. Hopefully it will improve with future episodes.