“There’s one universal truth, but two sides to every story”
There’s no accounting for taste.
It cannot be argued with, it cannot be reasoned with. Our personal tastes make up our visceral reactions to a great many things. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to ascertain how it is shaped, grown, and developed. Our tastes are our own, no one can take them from us. It’s a fool’s errand to argue over taste. If you like something, you like it. If you hate something, you hate it. Maybe not forever, but your response is still the truth.
Yet it is only your truth.
A Few Words on The Last Jedi
Some people HATE The Last Jedi. Hate is a strong word, and so I use it with purpose. Some people walked out of the theater not with questions, not with confusion, not with mixed feelings. Some left with no patience, no regard, and no tolerance. They left HATING The Last Jedi.
I’m not arguing they can’t. I believe every word they say about how they didn’t like the humor, or thought something was a cop out, or the filmmakers took the story in directions they didn’t appreciate. I can’t argue with them. Because that is their truth.
So in that spirit, let me simply share my truth on The Last Jedi.
I loved it. The more I think on it, the more I do. The harder I try to chip away at it, the stronger it gets. I love Rey, Finn, and Poe, and how each follow their paths in ways we did not expect. I love the bold portrayal of Luke Skywalker, such a dark take on a beloved character that may almost be dangerous. I love that we see Leia use the Force just one time before we say goodbye to Carrie Fisher. I love Vice Admiral Holdo, how her story is to essentially put Poe in a corner for trying to mansplain to his female superiors (and how she eventually shows him how it’s all done). I love Rose, and the perky energy she brings to a dour story. I love that Kylo Ren doubles down on his path into the darkness. I love that Rey is a nobody, born of nobodies, who stands as an example that a hero can come from anywhere. I love that last shot, a statement and reinforcement of what heroes mean.
Now that that’s done, I’ll need you to stop. Stop writing me your preemptive arguments, your strongly worded messages, your point/counterpoint comments. It always happens with a movie like The Last Jedi, evoking such strong emotions that everyone has to get it all out. If you didn’t like the movie, fine, I’m not going to argue with you about that. I’m not going to change your mind, you are not going to change mine. So you have a choice from here on out: click away now and ignore what I have to say, or read further for a few simple ideas that are only meant to be helpful.*
If you’re still with me, let’s start here.
A Few Words on Storytelling
Many of us have a fundamental misunderstanding of what storytelling is. Or, at least, it certainly seems that way. I say this now in regards to The Last Jedi, but it’s something that has worried me for a long time now. Allow me to quickly jot down a couple things that storytelling is not:
- Wish fulfillment
- Personal appeasement
- Audience speculation
- A Lecture
There are, of course, many more things that storytelling is not. Probably some things that I’m not thinking of. We listen to stories and watch movies for our own different reasons (tastes), yet storytelling itself is one thing, and one thing only:
What changes within the story? What changes within the characters? What changes within the world? And (more esoterically) what changes within us as the audience? It really is that simple. But making that simplicity work, that is the tricky part.
We tell stories to convey ideas, to impart lessons, to express how we see the world and find if anyone else sees it the same way. If you have to make your audience uncomfortable to do so, then so be it. While it’s risky to do that, it certainly isn’t breaking any rules in the big rulebook of storytelling. Storytelling is a skill, and it’s one we take for granted. Because we all have the ability to tell a story, but few have the wherewithal to tell a story.
Even amongst those that study storytelling (myself included) there are many that make profound miscalculations. It likely starts with adherence to 3-Act Structure, which we were all taught in school. While that’s a nice base-line understanding to have, it is not the rule of law. 3-Act Structure is a nice guideline, particularly for beginners learning the basics. But an organic story need not follow that structure. And you run into problems when writers start plugging their story points together in order to fit the concept.
That’s where things begin to fall apart in our collective understanding of storytelling: believing that simply knowing the basics means you’re an expert. I’ve seen critics, actual professional critics deride a film for simply having a Macguffin. That’s a serious misunderstanding of a simple plot device. It’s like criticizing a chef because you saw him use a pan. You can’t just memorize a couple keywords and use them to sound informative. Because critics have to be informative, and critique has to have understanding. And so…
A Few Words on Criticism
I’ve had a lot of colorful conversations about The Last Jedi in the wake of it’s release. Some of it constructive, but a lot of it petty, condescending, and resentful. I love debating the merits or demerits of film, whether I’m speaking to someone knowledgeable of the craft or not. I enjoy talking about films, what works, what doesn’t work. Expressing my feelings and my thoughts. Debating the merits of The Last Jedi has not been fun. The reason is really quite simple: lots of people refuse to acknowledge their personal feelings, thus confusing them with actual critique.
Now, criticism of Film (and all of art, by extension) is a very abstract concept. Filmmaking is not science, it’s alchemy. And people have a hard time wrestling with the idea (myself included). There are rules to follow, but they can be broken. That said, you have to know how to break them and why. When filmmakers break the rules to grand effect audiences can get a real kick out of it. But if you break a rule and it doesn’t work, it hurts bad.
So again, our personal feelings and taste enter the mix. How do we distinguish our visceral response from functional criticism? It’s difficult, and even the most educated viewer will have trouble with that at times. But it’s the difference between saying “I didn’t like this because that,” instead of “that didn’t work because this.” It’s the difference between saying “I don’t like this, therefore it’s bad,” and “this was bad, therefore I don’t like it.” Nearly every bit of criticism I’ve encountered regarding The Last Jedi has been of the former.
Every “plot hole” that’s thrown my way, every nonsensical story beat or character choice, every controversial detail that gets brought to me as a mark against the film… every one of them had a simple answer: you weren’t paying attention. Because I can find meaning and connection within the film for all these complaints. And it’s not because I’m some vanguard of storytelling, I’m not a gatekeeper, I’m not special. It’s all in the movie, you just have to pay attention. Just because you don’t want to do any work doesn’t mean the filmmakers didn’t. Believe me, the more you start giving filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that they might know what they’re doing, the more you see that they really do.
We have to be better than this. I don’t care how passionate you are about a particular franchise or series, we don’t need this kind of condescension in this conversation. Remember, it’s a lot harder to side with the assholes on any given day, and there’s good reason to believe Rian Johnson is no asshole.
*Let me be clear: if you comment on this post, try to contact me on Facebook or Twitter, wishing to explain how anything of what I’m saying about The Last Jedi is wrong, your words will fall on deaf ears. So don’t even try, and please find something constructive to do with that time instead.