Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Guest Expert James Kennedy On Why We Love Luke Skywalker, Part 2

Time for Day 2 of James Kennedy’s analysis of Luke’s introduction in Star Wars! (And when you’re done, check out the mini-masterpieces that James curates as proprietor of the 90 Second Newbery Film Festival. He’s always looking for new submission, too!)
19:30 C3P0 is taking an oil bath AND REALLY ENJOYING IT (“thank the maker!”). Who is responsible for C3P0 getting an oil bath? Well, even though we don’t see Luke putting him in, it’s clear Luke did it. Is this “Save the Cat”? In a way. Luke is making the robots feel better, which makes us feel better, because heck, after all the action those robots have seen, they deserve it! Even more importantly, Luke knows how to take care of robots and equipment -- we seem him being “good at his job” here, however humble it might be. (Maybe “good at his job” should be replaced by “comfortable with his job” on the list.) Only after the positive feeling of the scene has been established -- C3P0 jizzing over how much he loves this bath -- can we risk having Luke be totally negative and “whiny” (“It just isn’t fair. Biggs is right, I’m never getting out of here!”) But even though Luke is kind of bitching about his situation, he’s not overly emotional about it, more like resigned, which implies something more mature than a babyish tantrum. Meanwhile, all this time, Luke fixing R2D2, taking care of the very characters we’ve come to love, and who deserve some qualified care. Even though Luke “deserves better” (“It’s just not fair”), he doesn’t have an inflated sense of himself -- when C3P0 mistakenly calls him “Sir Luke,” Luke thinks it’s pretty funny and wryly laughs, saying “Just Luke” with a chuckle that means he doesn’t take himself that seriously, as if to say “Sir Luke? That’ll be the day.” (It also sets us up for the expectation of Jedi “knights” later on. C3P0 already sees Luke as a knight, even if Luke doesn’t). This winning, self-deprecating, but not whining attitude strikes just the right balance of realistic frustration without being obnoxious.
20:18 Luke says as he’s trying to fix R2, “You’ve got a lot of carbon scoring here, looks like you boys have seen some action.” Again and again, Luke doesn’t just say “what’s that?” like a slack-jawed yokel -- he has informed opinions about the world around him, and draws conclusions that usually end up being at least half right. He can accurately interpret the world he sees. He understands the universe around him, he’s at home in it, which makes us feel like he’s someone we could follow. This is not accomplished by one big obvious incident that was clearly put in by someone nervously following a checklist -- it’s dozens of small lines like this, that come out of the character, and slowly build this feeling of knowledgeable-ness.

20:26 As soon as C3P0 mentions the rebellion, Luke gets super excited. “You know about the rebellion against the Empire?” “Have you been in many battles?” He demonstrates real enthusiasm and excitement, perfectly prepared to listen even to this babbling robot. We love people who are sincerely enthusiastic and excited for worthwhile things!

20:43 Luke is trying and trying to dislodge something from R2D2. He’s been trying for a long time in this scene! Subliminal message: Luke won’t give up on solving a problem, even if it takes a long time, even if he has to force it a little.
20:48 Luke pries something out of R2 and causes the Princess Leia hologram to appear. (So he accomplished something! He’s not ineffective!) Luke is fascinated by it, and so are we, especially since we recognize Leia from earlier. Once again, Luke is canny and informed: when he asks where the hologram came from, C3P0 says R2D2 says it was a malfunction, old data that doesn’t matter, but Luke simply ignores this obviously bogus explanation (not even bothering to argue against it) because he intuits it’s important and just goes on to say “She’s beautiful!” This gives us another reason to trust Luke’s judgement: he knows this is an important thing, even though the robots are telling him ignore it. But we know it’s important. When Luke says “Is there any more of this recording?” an expectation is set up that we’ll see more, that he is motivated to find more, and when C3P0 says the next line to R2D2, he might as well be talking to the audience too: “It’s OK, you can trust him, he’s our new master!” Indeed, he’s our new hero.
21:50 As soon as C3P0 translates R2D2’s claim that he used to belong to Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke thoughtfully speculates, “I wonder if he means old Ben Kenobi.” Once again, Luke is an informed participant in this world who knows how to make a logical leap and put 2 and 2 together. He’s solving a puzzle! He goes on to say, “I wonder who she is. It sounds like she’s in trouble. I’d better play back the whole thing.” He takes action, following C3P0’s advice and removing R2D2’s restraining bolt in order to play back the rest -- a device which presumably keeps R2 on the farm. But then R2 stops playing the message! Hey, bring it back! (A form of “heroism unrewarded”?) C3P0 scolds R2D2.
23:15 In the very next scene, at dinner with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, Luke has the first line: “You know, I think that R2 unit we bought might’ve been stolen.” Again, Luke is thinking ahead, floating hypotheses, drawing conclusions, figuring stuff out. A much worse line would be: “Hey, what’s up with that R2 unit? It’s acting weird.” By giving Luke definite informed opinions about what R2D2’s problem is, we show that he’s a problem solver -- not by showing him solve big obvious problems, but just by exhibiting a problem-solving attitude, which makes us trust him. Luke goes on to float more hypotheses, conjecturing it might have to do with Ben Kenobi, which causes Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru to exchange significant glances which Luke doesn’t see -- the equivalent, socially and conversationally, of the Hitchcockian bomb-placed-under-the-table. When Luke asks Uncle Owen a direct question about it, Uncle Owen just grunts. Folks are withholding information from Luke! Just as they’re withholding info from us, the viewer! So we identify with Luke! We want to know more too, but when Luke presses Uncle Owen for more info, the old man just says, “I told you to forget it.” Hey, that’s not fair, but does Luke snap back or get snotty? Nope, he just takes it, because he’s respectful.
This is the opposite of whiny and petulant, this is mature. He knows fighting with Uncle Owen will get him nowhere, no matter how good his arguments are. He launches right into saying something positive, as if to lighten the mood: “You know, I think those new droids are going to work out fine!” But he can’t help but go on to add: “I’m also thinking about our agreement. About me staying on another season?" So we learn that Luke has made an agreement with Uncle Owen . . . an agreement, it becomes clear, that Uncle Owen is BREAKING. Luke isn’t allowed to go to flight academy this year. MAYBE he can go next year. The injustice! You can feel it! Because that wasn’t the deal! Luke deserves better than this, especially since all his friends have gone to flight school. He's being held back on the farm just so his Uncle Owen can wring more work out of him. You can tell Uncle Owen recognizes he himself is in the wrong because he stops being stern and gets a little whiny himself: “But harvest season is when we need you the most!” When Uncle Owen says, “Look, it's just one more season” and Luke replies “Yeah, that’s what you said when Biggs and Tank left,” we realize that Uncle Owen has pulled this bullshit before, that they’ve had this argument before and Luke always, unfairly, loses. Uncle Owen keeps promising him release and then keeps taking it away. Every child identifies with this!

Now: Luke’s parent figure Uncle Owen is breaking a promise to him. Does Luke yell or scream or complain? No, he excuses himself, non-dramatically. Aunt Beru says “Where are you going?” and Luke just says glumly, “It looks like I’m going nowhere. I have to go finish cleaning those droids.” So even when he is stalking off from a family argument, he’s still going to finish the cleaning chore Uncle Owen gave him. Even though he’s entitled to his emotion, he going to do his work anyway. This is whiny? This is petulant?
24:55 Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen discuss Luke. Since Luke is not in the room, the movie implicitly promises that everything they say here will be more or less true. Aunt Beru says of Luke, “He can’t stay here forever. Most of his friends are gone. It means so much to him.” (How can anyone not identify with this? Being unfairly held back while all your friends are going on to great success. Luke is practically like George Bailey, here!) Uncle Owen replies, lamely: “I’ll make it up to him next year. I promise.” No he won’t. He can’t. There’s nothing Uncle Owen can give Luke that Luke wants, that’s clear. And anyway, we all know that, any promise that is about “next year” will never be kept. So then the bombshell -- Aunt Beru says, “Luke’s not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him” and Uncle Owen responds, “That's what I’m afraid of”, now we’re truly intrigued by Luke -- there’s more to Luke than even Luke knows, and they key to it all is his father! So we’re subtly prepped for when Ben Kenobi starts talking about Luke’s father: whatever Ben says about Luke’s father (great star pilot, Jedi knight, cunning warrior) is something that is potentially true about Luke. Aunt Beru has promised it in this scene! She’s planted the seed here!
Luke goes and looks at the double sun setting and we get epic music. He looks frustrated at first, but then he bucks up and looks full of purpose. This scene takes a full 30 seconds! We’re sitting there with him, feeling with him his impossible situation, and we want so badly for him to succeed now. Now, Luke staring into a sunset while epic music plays for 30 seconds only works because of the context we’ve established up to this moment. We’ve never really spent much time with Luke alone to indicate that he’s the hero. Now, by spending 30 seconds with him after his conflict has been established, feeling that universal feeling of being held back, that there’s a bigger world out there that you have a place in, if only you could get there, Luke is irrevocably established as the hero of the movie -- he has a special place in this wild and wooly galaxy. That’s the promise this 30 second scene makes. Obviously, if this scene had happened at any time before all of his conflicts and personality had been established, this scene would be absurd. But here it makes perfect sense, and is necessary. It gives him dignity. Deep down, he’s more than a farm boy, if only the universe would give him an opportunity to prove it. Naturally, we’re starting to love him.

Come back tomorrow for Part 3!


Mark said...

I was going to post this on the first part, but I'll go ahead and do so here:

I am finding myself very convinced by James's description of Luke's "whining." Especially the idea that this is the sort of whining which immediately connects him with the exact intended audience of the film: prepubescent and adolescent boys.

I have for a long time been "over" Star Wars, and found it easy agree with Matt's "whiny" assessment. But reading these posts reminds me of how I even got to that conclusion in the first place: because I've seen these movies dozens (hundreds?) of times, and now as a "mature adult" feel equipped to criticize them. But certainly when I was 8 years old, or even 13, it would have blown my mind if you had told me that calling out Uncle Owen on wanting to go into Tasche Station for some power converters was a "whiny" behavior.

Geekademia said...

I've always thought Luke got a bit of a bum rap, mainly because he was overshadowed by obviously "cool" characters like Han Solo and Darth Vader. It's good to see someone catching all the things about him that are worth liking, and debunking the myth of Luke's whininess, which has existed for far too long, if you ask me.

This is not to say there aren't, to my mind, some minor problems with Luke, but I don't think they really show up until Empire. I always felt like Luke made an odd shift of being utterly reverent of Obi-Wan and mystified by his talk of the Jedi, to being a borderline reluctant pupil of Yoda. This might be because Obi-Wan is a kind and easygoing mentor, while Yoda is gruff and merciless, but I'm not sure that is exactly it. I also don't think this is damning to the character, just worth noting.