Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Guest Expert James Kennedy On Why We Love Luke Skywalker, Part 1

So this week I thought I’d do something different.  When I subjected Star Wars to my Ultimate Story Checklist, it scored very high, but the few questions it missed were fascinating to me, especially when it comes to why we like Luke.  As some of you may have noticed, whenever I mention Star Wars here, regular commenter James Kennedy (author of the delightfully deranged novel The Order of Odd Fish) chimes in with little corrections, so I figured I should pose this question to him.  Here’s the email I sent James:
  • Here’s my question: why do we love Luke Skywalker?? He certainly has no “save the cat” moment, and he basically doesn’t have a “moment of humanity” either. He’s never especially kind, or especially funny (he does make some mild wisecracks), etc. I’m running a checklist on the movie right now and he does pretty bad: We hear that he has special skills, and they’ll come in handy at the end, but we never get to see him demonstrate them onscreen in the first half. He doesn’t have much of a metaphor family or default argument tactic (other than ineffective sputtering) and his default personality is petulant whining! And yet we love him intensely!
  • Obviously the big reason is that we strongly identify with his frustrations and humiliations, but according to my little theories, that shouldn’t be enough.
  • One prime suspect is Hammil’s underrated performance, which goes a long to way to making his whining sympathetic and his longing looks at the horizon somehow stirring, but is that enough?
  • You’ve watched and analyzed this movie far more closely than I have, so I’d love to hear your thoughts: Why do we instantly love this unkind, petulant, whiny farmboy, who does nothing to win us over? 
To put it mildly, James’s response was epic. I’ll spread it over the next several posts, as James walks us through the first 30 minutes of the movie and analyzes it using both my tools and his own. I agree with most of what he says, and disagree with some of it, but I’ll save my own thoughts for next week. As for now, take it away James:

Jamess epic reply:

So! I just re-watched the first hour of STAR WARS with your comments in mind. Here’s my two cents. You say, "Why do we instantly love this unkind, petulant, whiny farmboy, who does nothing to win us over?" Come now! You know you’re being disingenuous. Luke is not actively unkind (in fact he treats the droids pretty well), and to say that he’s petulant/whiny overstates your case.

But it’s true that you’ve identified a anomaly! Luke doesn’t seem to fulfill the terms of your checklist. That's a problem, because the checklist is usually so accurate! Does the success of Luke Skywalker mean the checklist is invalid? No. Does it mean that Luke is a shitty hero and we all just got fooled into caring about him? No. Is STAR WARS a crazy, sui generis art movie like MULHOLLAND DRIVE that is outside the scope of your checklist? Nope, it's is the great-grand-daddy of all blockbusters that is explicitly used as a template for so much that came after! What is going on, then? (Actually, I think the third alternative is closest to the truth. STAR WARS secretly is a really weird movie, weirder than it gets credit for.)

Here’s my theory. The most obvious difference between STAR WARS and most popular action movies is that it’s a long, long time before we meet our hero. The first time we meet Luke, we’re already 17 minutes into the movie -- startlingly, more than an eighth of the movie is over, and we haven’t even set eyes on our supposed protagonist! Since this late arrival of the hero is the element that is most glaringly different, I suspect that that’s the reason the checklist fails.

In most movies the hero is introduced immediately, or soon after the opening credits. That has caused your checklist to conflate two issues: selling the audience on the hero and selling the audience on the movie. I think that if the audience is successfully sold on the movie early on -- through fulfilled promises, intriguing characters that are clearly in supporting roles, and a fast-moving and yet logical plot, then once the late-arriving hero is introduced, the audience’s resistance will have already been surmounted, and the filmmakers has much less work to do to make the hero heroic -- which is a particularly good strategy if you don’t want your hero to be an immediate superman, but just an ordinary dude like Luke. And since the audience is basically panting for a hero to show up by that point, they’re more likely to take what you give them.

(Actually, with almost every line and scene choice, Lucas does work hard in various small clever ways to make us like Luke, but it’s a lot of small subtle choices. I’ll outline them below.) Let’s outline everything that happens up to meeting Luke for the first time:
0:00-2:00 Opening crawl. This movie is called Star Wars, so we expect wars among the stars . . .
2:00 The first thing we see is a war among the stars! A giant Imperial ship chases a small rebel ship and captures it with lots of laser fighting and back and forth, explosions, etc. We've already gotten a glance at what a war among the stars looks like! The promise of “star wars" has already been fulfilled. The audience feels a little bit better: OK, they think, this movie knows how to deliver the goods! (Think of how much more difficult it would be, what a harder sell it would be, if we started on Tatooine, with Luke being frustrated -- even if he was watching the battle above with binoculars, as he was in the original script. No, we want to start with the most thrilling thing the movie can offer! The problem with zero-to-hero stories is that the STORY often starts at zero just as the hero. But that's a mistake, we have to at least see a hint of the kind of world the main character will contend with once he becomes a hero. This is why RAIDERS starts with Indiana Jones hunting for treasures in Peru, not in the classroom or university office waiting for his mission.)
4:40 Darth Vader enters. Clearly not the hero. So far we’ve also met R2D2 and C3P0, but since they’re not humans and are kind of comical, we don’t identify with them as heroes either. We certainly don’t identify with the cannon fodder rebels or storm troopers, who are all dressed the same. We’re worried for R2D2 and C3P0, and we’re interested in following them, but we don’t think of them as heroes, because they’re not humans -- and one of them is completely incomprehensible! If either of those robots had been a human instead, this trick of making us wait a long time for the hero wouldn’t have worked -- we would’ve been tempted to think of one of this pair as the hero, and then gotten some feeling of “hero confusion” when Luke does show up. The only way this effect of delaying the hero could be replicated in a “realistic” movie is if we were following the adventures of an animal or a guileless child. We do like these funny robots, we think they’re cute and amusing and we wish them well, but we’re never tempted to tag them as heroes. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re still waiting for a hero to come -- and the longer we wait (up to a point) the more strongly we’ll bond with the hero once he’s clearly presented.
5:00 Princess Leia appears from the shadows, gives R2 something, and runs away. If Leia did more, we’d be tempted to think of her as a hero, but she’s such a fleeting presence we’re not tempted to. Crucially, the thing she does is interact with R2D2, one of the folks we already kind of care about.
7:00 R2D2 and C3P0 blast off in an escape pod. One of the things that's a nice touch here, that STAR WARS does again and again, is show bit characters logically reacting to what's going on, so that we know this is a world that makes sense. As the escape pod blasts off, we see an imperial officer with a space bazooka say "there's another one" and it about to blow it up, but the other officer says something like, "Don't blow it up, it says there are no life forms on board, it must just be a malfunction." This tells us the imperials know the escape pod went to Tatooine, but let it go on purpose -- it wasn't a mistake. It's better in a story for everything to be on purpose rather than be a mistake. If this scene hadn't been in here, some nitpicker might've come along later and said, "If the Empire cared so much about capturing the blockade runner, why'd they let the escape pod go?" Even if this tiny 5-second scene doesn't totally answer the question (what would it cost the empire, really, to blow up the escape pod anyway?) it sets up a world in which everything is tightly connected, step by step, with a plausible chain of cause-and-effect, and if there's something weird, the filmmakers will make a good-faith effort to logically explain it -- so that functions as a guarantee to the audience that they don't have to get nervous about being lost in this crazy new world, even though it's going to be a fast, wild ride. Indeed, probably the faster and wilder the ride, the more the filmmakers has to make sure to be absolutely clear with the audience what's going on, and to add these little grace notes like this conversation between the two imperial gunners -- basically, it means the filmmakers are taking this world seriously. It's a bigger world than the hero and his story; he fits into a vast ecology of characters with their own goals and roles. So when the universe seems to give our heroes a "freebie" like this, a piece of improbable good luck, it's best also to throw in a plausible explanation as to why it happened, rather than, "well I guess they got lucky!" This helps sell the audience on the movie -- and by extension, on Luke once he appears. We'll trust that he's there for a logical reason because everything else so far has happened for a logical reason.
7:30 Vader confronts Leia. We find out precisely WHY Vader took over the ship and it makes sense. Crucially, Vader is always 2 steps ahead of everyone. He will see through your lies, which adds to his scariness. (VADER: “Don’t ask so surprised, your highness. You weren’t on any mercy missions this time. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by rebel spies. I want to know what happened to those plans they sent you.” He doesn’t have to ask, or torture the info out of her; he just knows. LEIA: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission -- ” VADER: “You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor. Take her away.” Basically, I see through your bullshit, don’t even try.)
8:00 Vader talks to some imperial officers and realizes the plans must've been in the escape pod. Wait -- Vader figures stuff out and is resourceful! He has clear goals! It's almost as if . . . he's the hero! Indeed, that's what MUST happen at the beginning, if you choose not to establish a clear hero early on: since we don't have a hero to fulfill the various points on the checklist, every other supporting character onscreen has to work overtime to pick up the slack fulfilling those points. Everyone we meet in the 17 minutes before we meet Luke is working hard for something specific and physical (Vader - recovering the plans, Rebels - defending their ship, R2-D2 - delivering the plans, C3P0 - saving his skin, Leia - sending the plans to Kenobi, Jawas - collecting and selling robots -- and every character is full of clear personality and goals. Nobody is just standing around. We are introduced into a universe where everyone wants very specific stuff, and they want it bad, and they're working for it. So when Luke eventually appears, the audience will expect the same about him.)
9:00 C3P0 and R2D2 are lost on Tatooine. They argue and go their separate ways. C3P0 gets lost in the desert, alone. Spots a transport and waves at it, trying to hitch a lift.
11:20 R2D2 is in a valley, alone. Gets captured by Jawas and taken to their transport. Inside the Jawa transport. R2D2 and C3P0 reunite at 15:00.
15:10 The storm troopers have landed on Tatooine. They've found the escape pod and they've found some signs of droids. his means the droids are trouble, because the stormtroopers will track them down wherever they go, so whoever gets them next -- that is, Luke -- is in lethal trouble.
16:00 The jawas force the robots to get out of the transport to sell them
17:00 We see Luke for the first time. But notice that even here, he's not the principal player in this scene. The guy who drives the scene is Uncle Owen, interrogating C3P0, haggling with Jawas. Luke is introduced as just one more small player in the massive, complex, dangerous world that's been built up to now. He's literally in the background. We see him helping out his uncle and being respectful to his Aunt Beru. He feels like a realistic kid out in the middle of nowhere -- which every suburban kid, like me, identified with. (Why am I stuck here in the middle of nowhere when all the action is clearly somewhere else?!)

Luke is the first person we’ve seen so far who isn’t a monster, or an old person. The youthful audience will naturally bond with him. And since we’re basically dying for a hero now, he comes like water in the desert, and we’re prepared to cut him all kinds of slack. We’re prepared to let him act a little less like a stereotypical hero and more like a regular kid. This is a great opportunity for the filmmaker. The worst thing right now would be for Luke to have an overly strong personality.
18:00 Uncle Owen buys C3P0 and another robot that isn't R2D2. He tells Luke "have these droids cleaned up by sundown" and Luke replies with the famous line that everyone claims is petulant and whiny: "But I was going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters!" What is it really whiny? All it means is, Luke was a real person before this scene began, and he had his own plans! Plans he was probably entitled to! When his uncle shuts him down with "You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done," every kid will identify with that. It's important that Luke has friends -- we don't trust people who don't have friends. And pace Uncle Owen, no time with your friends is "wasted" -- this old man clearly doesn't understand how important hanging out with friends is! Furthermore, cleaning the robots is obviously a new chore that is just now being added to a list of chores that it seems Luke has completed. But Luke does still obey Uncle Owen without question -- he's not a brat.

And here's an even more crucial thing: the story has put Luke in charge of these robots--the robots we've come to care about so much in the first 15-odd minutes, and the robots that the Empire will stop at nothing to recover! So Luke is the steward of something important, which makes us interested in him. And he's put in a position of authority -- it's clear that in this society, robots are almost the lowest of the low (only Jawas are lower) and so we have an implicit promise from the movie that Luke isn't a complete peon. He has a status that's somewhere in the middle: below Uncle Owen, but above the droids. (If a character is truly the lowest of the low, we eventually lose interest in them as a hopeless case. That's why it's important to have Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter -- Neville is even less confident than Harry at school, even more childish, he's someone who has even lower status. I think the general rule can be stated, if the hero is situated low on the social scale, but it has to be middle low, not all the way low; show at least one person who is lower, so we can unconsciously calibrate the social scale.)
18:40 Uncle Owen buys the "wrong" red R2 unit at first. Oh no, R2D2 and C3P0 are going to be separated! We feel bad about it! But then the red R2 unit blows up. Tellingly, Luke immediately knows what's wrong with it -- he doesn't just say, "What the heck!" but he says "Uncle Owen, this R2 unit has a bad motivator. Look!" This establishes another reason we like Luke, which we'll see again and again: Luke might not enjoy being a farmboy on Tatooine, but he's really good at it. He works hard and draws knowledgeable, canny conclusions about the stuff that happens around him. He knows the area and he knows the value of money. We'll see this again and again going forward.

19:00 C3P0 advises Luke to buy R2D2 instead, Luke takes his advice, which we really wanted to happen, because seeing R2D2 and C3P0 get separated again would make us sad. We like the action Luke takes here, which makes us like him. That said, after Luke takes C3P0’s advice, he subtly waves the robot silent when C3P0 blathers on. Luke is a canny, practical peasant: he can tell right away, just as we can, that C3P0 talks too much. (A worse choice, that would’ve superficially “made sense,” would be for Luke to be fascinated by what this golden robot had to say. But Luke comes pretty quickly to the conclusion we already know: C3P0 has almost nothing important to say. When Luke comes to an accurate conclusion like that so quickly, we trust him more.)

19:10 “Okay, let’s go,” Luke sighs as he takes the robots indoors. This sighing would be intolerable if Luke were the focus of the scene. But he isn’t the focus, which allows him to get away with this human moment. The emotions we really care about in this scene are R2D2 and C3P0’s (“Don’t you forget this. Why I should stick out my neck for you is beyond my capacity...”) There’s a good lesson in this, maybe: if, in order to keep your hero plausible, your hero has to indulge in some negative action or emotion that would make him seem unheroic, just make the emotion or reaction occur in the background or be implied offscreen.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2!


j.s. said...

Excellent work, James. I especially like this part:

"The problem with zero-to-hero stories is that the STORY often starts at zero just as the hero. But that's a mistake, we have to at least see a hint of the kind of world the main character will contend with once he becomes a hero. This is why RAIDERS starts with Indiana Jones hunting for treasures in Peru, not in the classroom or university office waiting for his mission."

Which also puts me in mind of films that start with the action of the world and sacrifice one or more characters who might have been the protagonist to illustrate the danger of the world. Obvious ones we've talked about before include SCREAM and THE HURT LOCKER. But a film like TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY also fits. We see Jim Prideaux risking his life for Control in the opening, showing us just how dangerous and treacherous is the world Smiley must now decipher.

My other favorite takeaway from this post is your discourse on the relative status of characters. It reminds me in the best possible way of the most interesting text I've ever read about the subject, a chapter in Keith Johnstone's awesome book IMPRO, which is ostensibly about improvisation in theater but actually about human psychology, the nature of creativity, the fundamentals of storytelling, etc. It's a truly excellent book, one that Brian McDonald of INVISIBLE INK fame turned me on to.

James Kennedy said...

j.s.! Thanks for the compliment. It means all the more to me since I've always thought your comments here have been so cogent and illuminating.

Keith Johnstone's IMPRO! I love that book too! I came across it in a different way, as a recommended text when I was studying improv here in Chicago. That book was a big deal for me.

Actually, it's because of *your* advocacy of INVISIBLE INK on this site that I went ahead and read it. That was an eye-opener too. It also connected a few dots in my life, since I had already seen Brian McDonald's mockumentary-about-racism-by-way-of-clowns WHITE FACE for a sensitivity training seminar when I was working at the U of C. I remembered thinking, that movie is way too enjoyable and savvy for the drab, mandated context in which I was seeing it...

rams said...

And thanks to one little line here, I'm now chewing over the parallels between R2D2 and Groot!

James Kennedy said...

@rams Totally! Rocket Raccoon and Groot make a pair that maps neatly onto C3P0 and R2D2: Rocket/C3P0 are both blabbermouths whom folks have a hard time respecting, while Groot/R2D2 are preverbal and yet get shit done. Maybe there's some parallel to the (debunked?) notion of the verbal, analytical left-brain and the nonverbal, intuitive right-brain, but that might be a stretch...

Parker said...

Really interesting! Thanks for sharing.

Now I'm going to be looking for Neville Longbottoms everywhere...

j.s. said...

James, glad to hear you know and love IMPRO too. The more I think about it, the more I think that, if he hasn't yet, Matt might want to read Chapter 2 and find a way to incorporate the idea of establishing/tracking the relative status of characters into the checklist. It's almost implicit in the ideas about defining the protagonist in contrast to the rest of an ensemble but not quite. At the very least it could spark some interesting new rules.

Anisa Ayunda said...