The Last Jedi, or How to Take a Piss on a Great Story

I love to teach the Star Wars movies as structures. They’re like great great structures for teaching my students how drama can work, especially in a film… If you think about the original three movies. Think about the way they’re organized together. In any movie or book—not always, but traditionally—there’s a place where the character, the main protagonist, has to make an absolutely important choice, and that choice will set the consequences and the terms of the rest of the movie and sometimes even the rest of this character’s life… In the first movie Luke makes the choice that he’s going to go follow Ben Kenobi, to pursue a lifetime in the force, and become a Jedi… If Star Wars was just nonsense, if it was jibberish, it wouldn’t hang as tightly as it hangs. Star Wars has been around a really long time. There isn’t a young person who hasn’t felt the choice between “I’m going to stay and help my family,” or “I’m going to go and do something else that’s more personal, that’s more me.” What makes Star Wars so poignant is you have this character who is so desperate to leave. He desperately wants to leave this little farm. But you know what he decides when he’s given the choice? He’s like you know what, my aunt and uncle need me. It’s an ethical thing. Even though I desperately want to go and be a pilot, I’m going to stay here and help them. And that choice he makes follows him throughout the rest of the movies. He’s more loyal than he is ambitious. That loyalty is not always something, as kids, we’re encouraged to embody. So when you see someone being loyal, really loyal, making a hard choice. “I’m going to stay at home on the farm rather than be a star pilot.” Well, that seems like a real thing to me.

— Junot Diaz

According to box office numbers, many of you have probably seen The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga.

(If you haven’t seen it be warned that there are spoilers below.)

As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, here is my emotional personal reaction to The Last Jedi:

NO! No, no, no, no, NO, no, no!, NOOOO!


OK, that’s out of the way.

The night I saw The Last Jedi I walked out of the theater no longer a Star Wars fan. For the rest of my life I guess I can pitifully cling to my precious original trilogy. I know it’s an old fart thing to do. But for those few of you interested in my puritanical originalist arguments, below are my reasons why The Last Jedi is a nothingburger movie.

#1 Rey’s story is boring

Rey is a perfectly good stock action movie character. And Daisy Ridley’s acting is incredible despite having little in the script or story to work with. But Rey, as a character, lacks the universal touch because her journey, so far, doesn’t embody anything. Paradoxically, fictional characters are made universal by their personal and particular struggles. Not from their blandness. Far from being a “Mary Sue”—a character who can do no wrong—which has been argued by many online critics, Rey is almost a totally passive character. It’s only superficially that she displays strength using the force, wielding a lightsaber, etc. Fundamentally her journey in this new trilogy doesn’t signify anything beyond itself.

The irony of Rey’s character is that, in trying to do a more interesting and updated version of Luke, she is actually made more generic. Like Luke, Rey is a straightforward orphan type. Done over and over again in literature. Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins… But unlike Luke, Rey doesn’t make any active decisions to begin her journey, nor does she risk anything personal to endear us to her struggle. She’s waiting for her parents. Okay. She’s been chilling on this desert planet all this time salvaging rusted metal and eating green muffins. Okay. Then she’s in the right place at the right time and gets swept up in an adventure. Okay. And ends up being randomly amazing at the force. Okay.


But no.

By the end of The Last Jedi, who cares about what happens to Rey? Just like every other story-line she’s involved in, her meeting with Luke is basically a blind alley. She learns some things about the force. But nothing about her personal struggle for identity is furthered one way or the other. She tries finding identity in her meeting with Kylo, which makes no narrative sense, but that ends up being another blind alley as well. How many wild goose chases does Rey have to go on before we glean one single thing about her character?

Here’s what I think they’ll name Episode IX:

Star Wars: Chasing Pots of Gold to the Ends of the Galaxy for no Reason Whatsoever

#2 Of plot holes & story weaknesses

The plot holes in The Last Jedi are so flagrant there is really no excuse for it. But the plot holes are only the symptom of a poorly crafted story.

It’s clear to me Rian Johnson has confused creativity with subversiveness. Being subversive is easy. Any teenager or French philosopher can do that. But being really creative isn’t easy at all. Building something truly inspiring from the ground up requires an inconvenient amount of introspection and imagination.

If you pay close attention, every plot point in The Last Jedi is a cute little comment on Star Wars—an attempt to deconstruct a convention that went before it. Deconstruction is fine as long as you replace what you tear down with something better, but The Last Jedi has nothing to bring to the table to replace what it tears apart.

  1. A planet destroying super weapon plot is replaced by a more micro & local level slow motion battle ship chase plot
  2. The trigger happy space cowboy is put into his place by a “strong” self-sacrificing Christ figure
  3. The subplot to retrieve the hack for the enemy shield ends up amounting to saving space goats
  4. The Jedi are replaced by… well, nothing. Just these characters… I mean they’re fine but… C’mon, they’re not Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo.

Each plot hole directly correlates with one of these points of deconstruction. The slow spaceship chase doesn’t make sense, because an entire First Order fleet could easily take down one Resistance ship, even if that ship had a functioning shield and plenty of fuel. There is so much labored dialogue throughout these scenes about why this isn’t the case, about how they can be tracked through light speed, etc., to the point where, for me, the exposition was a dead giveaway. It was too far a stretch and I was taken out of the drama.

Poe Dameron the Whiny Space Cowboy responds to said dilemma impetuously, so much so that he invites the scorn of Vice Admiral Holdo, the new acting commander of the ship, with whom he develops something of a rivalry. This narrative piece depends on the premise going before it to work, which it doesn’t, so the drama built on top is even more flimsy: Poe wants to know the plan for escape, but Aldo won’t tell him. After all he’s being a real jerk! But beyond this it isn’t clear why Holda is leaving everyone in the dark as they float helplessly along in space without an apparent plan of action. This contention between Holda and Poe seems contrived, like it had to be written for the story to work in the way it eventually did, and when Holda goes all kamikaze, it becomes clear. This was an edifice to support Holda’s now famous hyperspace scene. A cool idea, but a forced one that produces holes in the story. To quote a recent article which put it more bluntly:

“More to the point, though, this didn’t have to be a suicide run. Hyperspace jumps are plotted by computers, and droid ships are already a Star Wars staple. There’s no reason navies couldn’t construct unmanned ships to take on this task.”

#3 It’s just a Marvel movie in space

This all may seem like a bunch of nit-picking. And it is. To be fair, as a standalone movie The Last Jedi is fine, passable, a piece of neatly crisped toast. But as an extension of a story that has meant a lot to serious fans, who see it as maybe just a little more than a movie, The Last Jedi represents a concession to mainstream low-grade movie writing. It would be impossible to overestimate the role Star Wars has historically played in shaping the art of the Hollywood blockbuster. Star Wars wrote the playbook for big epic movies and now, instead of paving the way for new territory, continuing to blaze new trails, it’s absorbed the worst of it’s own cheap imitators.

I want to be very clear (if you’ve made it this far in the article). There’s nothing wrong with enjoying this movie. If you liked The Last Jedi, that’s good by me. Honestly I, and other Star Wars fans like me, are really not out to score hipster points at this late stage in the game. That’s not what it’s about. It probably sounds very snooty to be all about the ‘originals.’ But the apparent anger we feel really has more to do with the life cycles of art, which can be brutal. Trends go up and down. Mediums go in and out of fashion. Sometimes a lot of creative energy is concentrated in one industry while another flounders and has to re-find its footing. People are inspired cross-culturally by different things at different times. And every so often a thing has enough longevity to cross over into a new generation or a new medium and is reinterpreted. Sometimes this goes over really well and other times it doesn’t.

Here are three great videos you can watch that do a better job explaining everything wrong with The Last Jedi.


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Cincinnati: Summer 1995

(This post is dedicated to and inspired by James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 which you can read here.)


Time moved very slowly when I was six years old. I have read many theories about this. Some say that because a child’s brain and body are so new, the blood and heart so fast and the cells so active, the speed at which they are moving actually causes time to slow down around them. Others say that because young minds have a shorter attention span, they become bored more easily and therefore feel time’s passage more acutely. Like staring at a clock. I don’t necessarily think these two are incompatible or contradictory. My own theory is that, being shorter, kids’ heads are closer to the earth’s gravitational pull. You know, Einstein’s Law of Relativity and all that. Like I say, I remember these long days. Especially in summer. There are echoes and images of days like this buried in my mind, like at the bottom of the well, folded in upon one another, made complicated and probably inaccurate by time and age, but with a common innocence strung together by cracked sidewalks and chain link fences and telephone wires. For instance, one strong image is of our next door neighbor’s bird bath which was always splotched with moss, and the stone it was made of looked very old like a gravestone from the Civil War. When I was finally tall enough to see over the bowl, I remember being disappointed to find that there was no water in it. And no birds either. There were only the husks of dead nuts, leaves, and twigs that had fallen from the trees above. Now, I realized why squirrels would have wrestling matches in there.

At this age my head was still pretty close to the ground but also I was growing up. This summer was a transitional one. I was learning how to ride a bike. And having just turned six years old that July, I was to begin kindergarten in mid-August. How could I have known that from here on out, after this point we all cross, I would always have somewhere to be during the day and some task expected of me, and that every summer thereafter would be an unsuccessful attempt to recreate a freedom that only exists in childhood? No, none of us really know what is coming. We are so eager to grow up.

Our street was somewhat narrow. The houses were close together, built before World War One, a type of classic American look, with thin strips of yard and thin strips of driveway and small porches, and sometimes brick and sometimes vinyl siding. There wasn’t a single rainy day on that street. Well, of course I’m sure it did rain sometimes, but if it did I don’t remember, and it’s my childhood memory, so what the hey; every day on that street was sunny. And the summers especially were hot and blue.

I was shooting basketball at our next door neighbor’s house—their whole backyard was an asphalt driveway rimmed with some dumpy looking trees—and, as I dribbled the ball around, before every shot, I thought, God, help me to be more like the Red Power Ranger.  Dear future self: please do not end up like Creulla de Vil. If I made the shot that was God telling me I would be more like the Red Power Ranger. There were many other such scenes that summer. If, for instance, I could put my head under water long enough to touch the bottom of the pool or if I went across the monkey bars all the way without letting go, I had achieved a certain type of acceptance from the universe. That was how games and dares worked.  Without the ability to distinguish between Republican or Democrat, I was working very hard and crudely on the ideas of good and bad. I can’t remember this, but I would imagine that the tenor of public life back then was still very colored by the falling of the Berlin wall and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But I was not even tempted to think about that because, as kids say, that was grownup stuff. That was for people who had shrunken down the world to an unmysterious thing they could fit inside their head.  But kids know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The idea was to be brave in real life. Like dad. He had a mustache. And when he shot a basketball he made it. At the park the other taller men looked silly when he dribbled around them and he swished three pointers. The taller men, with their hands on their knees, would say, Oh, man, he’s quick. I knew if I did everything right and brave I could one day be a man with a mustache, dribbling around taller men, shooting three pointers.

This is all very cute but I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. What we talk about when we talk about earlier times, about our childhood, is an imposed simplicity that only exists in the mind. What is truly idyllic are probably not periods of time in history but periods of time in personal history. But, what of it? Lest we prematurely jump to the wrong conclusion, we should also ask, What isn’t in the mind? And what is the real imposition? Even when our bodies get old and our blood slows down and our heads get further from the earth and we grow mundane and sober and we begin to be tempted to think that the End is Nigh, is that not also in the mind?


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Whispering into the Megaphone

In 2007 the writer George Saunders published a collection of essays entitled The Braindead Megaphone. The subject of the title essay is the description of a metaphor for how media consumption has evolved overtime to the present moment:

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, owned businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase, “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

I love a good metaphor.

This was written in 2007. Can you imagine? Twitter was just a year old. The first generation iPhone was released three months prior. George W. Bush was the president! Saunders was concerned primarily with cable news on TV. How quaint is that in 2017? The party has turned into something else. But Saunders was on to something that we certainly haven’t reckoned with ten years later, and continues to grow worse.

We’ve become used to Megaphone Guy and are even starting to like him, and getting cozy with his methods because, well, everybody’s doing it, man. Now, as party favors, there are little megaphones for everyone. Sure, some are larger than others. All the more reason to let your voice be heard!

But the real effect is this: what looks like everyone’s voice being heard is really the original Megaphone Guy’s voice being amplified not once but twice. Once through the original message, and then again through the echoing blasts of his supporters or detractors downstream who claim to proffer something new and different, but—whatever they may claim—they are still having to respond to an agenda set by the biggest megaphone in the room. And while it’s true that technology has made the distribution of megaphones more widespread and democratic, the quality of information has remained the same. Or gotten worse. The laws governing attention are no more based on who is “the smartest, most experienced, or most articulate” person at the party:

Imagine that the Megaphone has two dials: One controls the Intelligence of its rhetoric and the other its Volume. Ideally, the Intelligence would be set on High, and the Volume on Low—making it possible for multiple, contradictory voices to be broadcast and heard. But to the extent that the Intelligence is set on Stupid, and the Volume on Drown Out All Others, this is verging on propaganda, and we have a problem, one that works directly against the health of our democracy.

If that’s not prophecy–

I would love to be able to claim to be part of the solution to this, but I can’t. Perhaps like some of you, when I’m supposed to be doing work, I have a secret hunger for the noise and refresh my news webpages more than I need to, and I find myself doing it regardless of whether I really want to or not, like an impulse, and sometimes, like right now, when I am writing, I have to turn off the WiFi altogether or I will continually go back to the same pages to look for new developments in a day that I allow to be defined by the Megaphone guy.

But maybe we can get out of these habits if we try.

My dream for this blog would be to carve out a little section of the party for people who want to turn the Megaphone Intelligence up and the Volume down. Maybe we can even find a side room or something, throw the Megaphones out the window, and talk again. And who knows, maybe other people will come and join. Maybe the loudest only seem to win and in the end they really don’t. Maybe if we ignore Megaphone guy he will get tired and go home. There is only one way to find out. We have to start trying something different:

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.


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State of the Blog

Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?

Well, hopefully, no.

Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.

This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.

When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.

Stay tuned.



At a Small Smoky Jazz Bar in a Forgotten Corner of Heaven


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A Friendly Reminder from George Orwell: Nothing is New under the Sun

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends… What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency… But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are all powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

– George Orwell, Diaries, March 27, 1942


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Like Food, Books are a Matter of Taste

Here’s a fourth grade word problem for you:

As of 2017, there are an estimated 134,621,533 ISBN numbers in existence. If 600,000 books are published each year, and Daniel Douglas, who is 28 years old, reads at the pace of one book every two weeks, what percentage of total books published will he have read before he reaches the average US life expectancy of 78 years?

Answer: 0.0000079%

In light of these odds, the process of actually choosing what to read is mysterious. A book is a real time investment. Most will take more than a few hours to read. Many readers  develop something of a process they can rely on to, more often than not, generate options that will be worth it. But it’s difficult to put into words exactly what this process is. A lot of it is pure luck. Sometimes you stumble on something you really love and from that there may naturally stem other, similar options.

Or sometimes you find someone like Clifford Lee Sargent of Better than Food Book Reviews, a reviewer of the highest-caliber taste, who also happens to be very entertaining to watch. The real value of his videos is that he doesn’t review books he wouldn’t recommend reading. They’re all positive reviews, which can shed light on good books to contribute to your 0.0000079%, and how best to read them.

Check out some of my favorites below:



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