Friday, October 10, 2014

My Response to James: Why Do We Like Luke in Star Wars?

Over the last three days, we’ve seen James Kennedy’s epic response to my question about Luke’s possible petulance in Star Wars. Here’s my response to his response:

To begin, here’s some stuff I agree with:
  • I certainly agree that Star Wars is a much weirder story than most people realize.
  • Good point that Luke doesn’t have to sell us on the world or tone of the movie because he’s not our POV character, which means that he doesn’t have to be as likeable. He’s not saying, “Hi, I’m Luke and let me show you my crazy world!”, he’s just saying, “Now that you’ve accepted this crazy world, here’s a hero!”
  • That said, it’s still truly bizarre we put up with 17 minutes of prologue without a clear hero. As you point out, it helps that everyone (except 3PO) is pursuing goals hardcore while we wait. (Of course, this problem is just a result of the fact that the first two Luke scenes were cut out. We’ll take a look at those scenes next week and consider what effect they might have had.)
  • You make an interesting case that giving Threepio a bath is “saving the cat.” Not sure I buy it, but it’s possible.
  • The “Sir Luke” line is very key, of course. “Just Luke” is a mini-version of the false philosophy: “A guy like me can’t be a knight.”
  • Ben being too old is key: “I’m smarter and more bad-ass, but I’m too old to do it myself, so I have to train you.”
  • I definitely agree that one of Luke’s big strengths is that he’s cheerfully gung-ho: Looking for the droids, rushing to fight the sand people, rushing back home, selling his speeder, rescuing Leia, eager to blow up the Death Star, etc.
And some stuff I definitely disagree with:
  • We read the dinner scene differently: I think Luke is trying to break the agreement: To me the implication is that he already agreed to stay on another season until the end of the harvest, but now he wants to get out of that by saying the droids could take his place instead. I could see how you could read it either way.
  • You say: “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?” In a word, yes! There’s a difference between petulance and defiance. Luke is not defiant, he’s not angry, he’s not surly…he’s petulant. This is the dictionary definition of petulance: “childishly sulky or bad-tempered”
  • I totally disagree with your contention that Luke puts 2 and 2 together about the dead Jawas. Just the opposite: he’s totally fooled into thinking the Sand People did it until Obi Wan figures it out and corrects him.
But let’s get to the main question: I think that Luke certainly does sound whiny when he says he’d rather go to Tosche Station, but it’s saved by the fact that his small flaw gets an outsized comeuppance. This is a classic trick: Luke deserves an upbraiding, but, “You can waste time with your friends later,” is excessive. This is always a great way to be introduced to a character, because we see that they have a real personal problem that we can worry about, but we also get to burn with indignation for them because we see that they’re being over-punished for it. Ironically, this bonds us to the character more than it would if the humiliation was not at all justified.
I originally had his big flaws listed as “naïve and whiny” and his flip-side strengths as “idealistic and eager,” but thanks to you I now realize that this isn’t quite it. The naïve/idealistic pair is definitely there, but the other pairing (which is more prominent) would be better described as impatient/gung-ho (Yoda pretty much says this outright in the Empire, come to think of it). This is why we aren’t bothered by his petulance (until the 4th or 5th viewing, when we suddenly notice it): It’s not his personality, it’s his flaw. We sense right away that it’s the aspect of his personality that he needs to change, which makes it a bug, not a feature. The flaw is the one aspect of the hero that we are not asked to identify with.

This also links back to a previous post: the flaw should usually be something you would admit to in a job interview. When an interviewer asks you about your flaws, you would never say “whiny”, but you might say “impatient”, because that’s the more sympathetic version of that flaw.

So thanks again to James for the illuminating discussion! ...But wait folks, there’s more! Spinning out of James’s thought and my re-watch, there are many more storytelling tips that can be gleaned by re-examining this movie:
  • The pros and cons of cutting out Luke’s intro scenes
  • The value of the droids wandering around (including one more argument from James’s letter that I haven’t included yet)
  • The value of semi-random worldbuilding
  • The value of a legacy
  • The value of the “half-fact”
  • Lucas’s respect for “the way the world works” (even though it’s not our world)
  • Luke as emotional manipulator
  • Obi Wan’s counterintuitive metaphor family
Come back next week as we dive in further!


Bill Peschel said...

I've been going through MST3K on YouTube lately, and think there's one more tool that applies here: pacing.

I can see this especially in two movies that I saw on adjacent days: "City Limits" (post-apocalyptic film starring Robbie Benson and James Earl Jones) and "Teenagers from Outer Space" ('50s sci-fi).

"City Limits" dragged. The performances had no energy. Many of the actors seemed to be sleepwalking through their lines. "Teenagers" was silly, but it moved! Each scene had its share of stupid, but lack of energy was not one of them.

Perhaps that's a reason why we go through the opening 17 minutes of SW before we meet the hero. By not letting the story drag, by raising all these story questions, we're willing to forgo choosing whether we should stay or go. "This movie seems like it knows what it's doing; let's hang around and see what happens next." In other words, it's making a promise that it spectacularly fulfills.

James Kennedy said...

Thanks for letting me take the wheel for a few days, Matt! Just crossed one off the ye olde bucket list.

Unknown said...

Great series of posts, James, and an interesting rebuttal from Matt. I really enjoyed this. I find Star Wars tricky to analyze because it's such a part of the culture that we don't experience it like other movies. That is to say I can't judge what works and what doesn't just by my reactions (this feels exciting! Ooh, suspenseful, what will happen next? Haha, funny!), because my reactions are clouded and skewed by my familiarity with it (in spite of having seen it no more than three times and not being a super-fan -- it's just so everywhere. That said, I did find Luke kind of unappealing in my most recent viewing, most strongly in the scene where they're preparing to attack the Death Star and one of the other pilots says, "But that's impossible." And Luke responds "No it's not! I something something kill womp rats at home and they're smaller than two meters..." His voice just feels so tinged with a sort of high school one-upmanship that made my skin crawl (bad flashbacks)-- and it's a very Luke scene. That said, I don't know if looking at Luke in a vacuum is the way to analyze this movie, because it's an ensemble and was cast as such. (Apparently Lucas had several groups of three actors, Luke, Leia, and Han, and chose the best trio based on chemistry, not on any single actor's reading.) I don't think very many people would be satisfied with Luke: the Movie, but only a short while after he's introduced we get Han, whom I recall very clearly was the character I was most taken with the first time I saw the movie, roughly around the time I was an adolescent, but would I have wanted to see Han: the movie? I doubt it; these characters work great in opposition to each other.