A Good Ending: A Star Wars Review

This weekend, I finally saw Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final installment of the so-called Skywalker saga, which of course began in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s not well-received by critics.

The review site’s Critic Consensus says, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker suffers from a frustrating lack of imagination, but concludes this beloved saga with fan-focused devotion.”

On the other hand, audiences are giving it high ratings, according to the site. I’m going to take the audience’s side on this.

It’s a good movie. Good. Not great. My critic’s mind wants to agree that it is unfocused, but the Star Wars fan in me says, “Yes, it was a nice, fitting ending to the saga.”

It’s definitely action-packed, which lends to the lack of focus. There are some story arcs that seem to get started then flutter out — like that of ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who seems to be Force-sensitive, and possibly Jedi material. And it echoes Return of the Jedi a bit too much with the revival of Emperor Palpatine, a return to Endor, and the ruins of the last Death Star, the attempt to turn Rey to the dark side, the final desperate battle against overwhelming odds.

At the same time, it’s the thing you want. It’s what made the original Star Wars on one level the movie it was: an uncertain hero, desperate rebels fighting and beating the Empire, and a lot of action. Star Wars wasn’t a perfect movie, and critics didn’t necessarily fall in love with it when it came out.

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them,” wrote John Simon of New York Magazine.

Of the many things that made A New Hope work and become the phenomena that it came, especially if you were around nine or 10 when the movie came out, was the spectacle, the sense of awe and wonder. From the moment the Star Destroyer fills the screen in the opening scene to the Death Star exploding, you’re drawn into the world, a world you wanted to live in and be a part of. A world you became a part of, playing Star Wars with your friends, reading the Marvel comic books, reading the novels — my first taste was the novelization of the movie (ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster) and Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

Star Wars was magical, a feast for the imagination. The latest trilogy isn’t that, at least for me, and probably not for many around my age. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are good movies as this final installment is. Even the prequels have a tiny bit of merit. They take themselves too seriously.

The thing is, those films can’t capture the magic of the original trilogy. The magic is in our memories and associations of growing up with this story. It’s imprinted in our hearts and imaginations. J.J. Abrams isn’t ruining our childhoods. He’s telling new stories to captivate other generations. Granted, my critic’s mind doesn’t find them as strong of stories as the originals, at least as far as the trilogy goes. Rogue One is a superb movie, and even Solo is good for an origin story.

What’s in a name?

What’s important about names in writing? In nonfiction, as in life, you’re stuck with what you’re given. You don’t necessarily get gems like Roy Peter Clark talks about in Writing Tools. He writes about a story he ran across in the Baltimore Sun of a woman named Sierra Swann whose daughters apparently died because of her devotion to boyfriend Nathaniel Broadway.

Though, I have run across gems when I worked for a newspaper and had to type up the list of those jailed in the county jail. There was apparently one family of troublemakers who named their children after rock stars Billy Idol and Van Halen.

In fiction, you can come up with gems like Jubal Harshaw or Socrates Fortlow. Or you can, sometimes. Creating memorable fictional names can prove challenging. Usually you want them to fit the character. Scrooge comes to mind in this season. Or The Grinch.

But pedestrian names like John Smith could work, too, if your character is at least in the beginning pedestrian.

Names matter. My own last name can cause trouble when signing up for stuff online. For some screeners it might sound like I am crowing about something fragile.

Place names too can like Ding Dong, Texas, have a ring. They can be forbidding like Death Valley or inviting like Paradise.

What do you think of the importance of names in writing? How do you use them? Where do you find them?

Current News: No More Mr. Nice Guy or Why I’m Reading Machiavelli, Part II

Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_TitoSo, who is this Machiavelli guy anyway? And why does he have such a bad reputation?

To figure out what made him so bad, I had to drag him out of my dustbin of history—the vague recollection of a history major who took a Renaissance history course way back in 1988. All I could think of was his reputation for writing an allegedly nasty little book, The Prince.

But surely a book with a bad reputation wasn’t enough to give him such notoriety, to make him worthy of study, was it? Of course not. Machiavelli was more than a one-hit wonder. He played a central role in establishing the foundations of humanism, especially when it came to our modern understanding of history.

Reimagining the study of history

Along with contemporaries like Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Guicciardini and Jean Bodin, Machiavelli’s histories reimagined the past and gave back to history its “causal autonomy,” autonomy medieval scholastics usurped in their need to root through Greek and Roman classics for evidence of God’s divine plan, according to historian Eugene Rice’s The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559.

“Recourse to God’s providential plan or to direct intervention by God in order to explain historical events became rarer,” Rice writes. “The explanations advanced by Bruni, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini are usually natural rather than supernatural, involving causes rooted in the appetites of individuals or in the ambitions of particular social or political groups.”

Before the Renaissance, Rice says, medieval scholars “divided history into an age of darkness and error and an age of light and truth.,” For medieval scholars, studying both ages revealed the progress of God’s divine plan for humanity — it was bleak before Jesus came along.

Renaissance historians, according to Rice, split history into three distinct periods: ancient, medieval and modern. By doing so, these historians exercised a value judgment against medieval thought, one that “reversed the traditional metaphor of light and darkness. Antiquity, so long considered dark because it was the time of pagan error, became in this new vision of the past an age of light; while the period after the decline of Rome was branded an age of cultural decadence and barbarism. Correspondingly, the humanists represented their own age as a new historical epoch of a special kind: a renaissance — an age of light after darkness, awakening after sleep, rebirth after death.”

This new way of thinking about history contextualized it. It made the past, past, as William Faulkner might say. It alleviated medieval thought of its provincialisms and anachronisms.

Eliminating anachronism helped uncover fact from fiction and began to hold truth to power. It allowed humanist scholars and educators like Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus to develop methods of textual analysis to uncover inconvenient truths. Valla notably exposed false claims of fiefdom in the Donation of Constantine, a forged document that allegedly granted the papacy extensive property in Italy, thus strengthening the Church’s political power. In turn, Erasmus argued against a scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, an idea within Christendom that was controversial until “interpolated into the New Testament after the Council of Nicaea,” Rice says.

This form of textual criticism “is the concrete embodiment of an historical sense and represents the beginning of modern ‘scientific history’,” Rice says. Such criticism further secularized the study of history. “Instead of being an illustration and justification of God’s ways to man, history was, in [the Renaissance historians’] view, a guide to life.”

Machiavelli is explicit about this view in The Prince, “As for intellectual training, the prince must read history, studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conducted themselves during war and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats, so that he can avoid the latter and imitate the former. Above all, he must read history so that he can do what eminent men have done before him: taken as their model some historical figure who has been praised and honored; and always kept his deeds and actions before them.”

This is a key reason we still study history. Or should. To remember the past in order to avoid its mistakes, to improve our leadership skills in whatever field we’re in. But, to study history is more than that. It takes us away from ourselves into other lives, as novels or movies or art does. It takes us away from provincialism, away from seeing the world in the narrow scope of home. It takes us away from a dangerous anachronism — the past is dead: how I cringe at evangelicals wanting to live as if we were in the first century or at the voices of Southerners who want to preserve “heritage,” who don’t want to rid themselves of old times not forgotten, for whom the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

When I read history or watch a well put-together documentary series like Ken BurnsThe Vietnam War: A Film, I see the world as it was, and how it got to the present. I wince when I hear President Johnson declined to reveal that he learn Nixon has colluded with. South Vietnamese President Thieu to stall peace talks until after the U.S. election. For Johnson, that would reveal his less-than-scrupulous methods of getting the dope on Nixon’s treasonous act.

I choke up watching veterans touch The Wall and trace their fallen brothers’ names. I feel their anger and the increasing anger of the anti-war movement at a government that for more than a decade lied to perpetuate a war they knew was unwinnable. I see the roots of our current divide and worry that we might not ever heal from this gaping wound. Finally, I see the depth of humanity, its folly and its triumphs — the sorts of things Machiavelli saw and wrote about in his time with perhaps the hope someone might learn from them.

— Todd

Part III coming soon.




























Current News: No More Mr. Nice Guy or Why I’m Reading Machiavelli, Part I


So, why am I reading Machiavelli’s The Prince? First, I watched this video.

Why did I watch this video? In part, I’ve come to enjoy these short School of Life videos. They are entertaining, funny and informative. And, they are short enough to listen to on break or while washing dishes or eating lunch.

Machiavelli came to mind, however, because of current politics. It seems a moment when politicians and public officials, no matter their political leanings, devote themselves to maintaining power over the consent of the governed rather than governing by consent to further a just society. To maintain power, they operate by Machiavelli’s notion that the ends justify the means. They connive, lie and cheat for the sake of power.

We usually find this appalling. And yet, we see it as necessary, because we hold two conflicting notions in our heads — our leaders should play nice, so to speak, but simultaneously be effective. We also encounter this conflict personally.

Machiavelli says effectiveness comes when we cast niceness into the dustbin of history. Why? What does it mean to be “nice”? What exactly are we casting out? Isn’t it good to be polite, well-mannered, agreeable? Churlishness from anybody, as Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, is off-putting, but so is excessive niceness. Such niceness lends itself to servility and roadblocks effectiveness.

This notion troubles me. I’m often told “You’re so nice.” It’s a learned trait, overdone, in my case. Niceness is probably overdone by many of you, especially if like me you grew up in the South and, when you were rude or belligerent, had someone in your family — for me, my mother — tell you “Be nice” or “Don’t be ugly.”

This admonition was more than it seemed, more than a cue to be better behaved, to socialize properly, to play well with others. It meant be agreeable at all costs, be polite at all costs, be passive at all costs, be submissive at all costs. Niceness in this mode was allegedly honey to the fly.

This is a path, however, to losing self-respect, according to psychologist and social critic Jordan Peterson.

“It’s impossible to respect yourself until you grow teeth,” he says in a lecture available on YouTube. “And if you grow teeth, you realize you’re somewhat dangerous, or maybe somewhat seriously dangerous, and then you might be more willing to demand that you treat yourself with respect and other people do the same thing.”

In college, a friend told me I needed to summon my dark side. Because I was raised “to be nice” such a suggestion made me squeamish.

Age and experience have put me more in touch with my dark side. Journalism has put me in touch with other’s darker natures. Still, I think I overdo niceness. I often find myself passive when I should be assertive and active. Such passivity holds me hostage to Fortune.

So, reading Machiavelli appeals to me. While I don’t want to become a churl, I need more teeth, and Machiavelli is a dentist ready to pull the rotten teeth and replace them with strong ones. I need to be more effective as a person, to challenge Fortune so she doesn’t wash willfully over me like the Brazos River overflows its banks during a flash flood.

“[Fortune] shows her potency where there is no well-regulated power to resist her,” Machiavelli writes, “and her impetus is felt where she knows there are no embankments and dykes built to restrain her.”

End of Part I

So, who was Machiavelli anyway? I’ll explore that in Part 2

— Todd





Current News: Kindle Version of Short Story Collection”About Jake” Available

51Bt5d3dCPLHi fans,

Just a brief note: My short story collection About Jake and Other Stories is available now as an e-book on Amazon. Look for a paper version soon.

Here is the link: About Jake and Other Stories

Hope you enjoy it.


On Writing: Talking Heads


If you’re anywhere near my age, you know Talking Heads was a pretty good band from the ’80s. Their sound is electronically funky and weird, fun to listen to. On the other hand, when you find yourself following talking heads in large chunks of dialogue, you find yourself in a not so beautiful place. You find yourself lulled mad by a monotonous drone.

Let me explain: a couple days ago at my local library, I turned in unfinished John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I still had a couple of renews left on the book, the sixth in the Old Man’s War series. But, I lost interest midway through the novel, so there was no reason to renew or read on.

This is a shame, because I’ve loved the other books in the series. Like any great series, Old Man’s War has an engaging cast of characters, great individual story lines and a compelling narrative arc that stitches each novel together into a unified whole. As a bonus, the series is punctuated with bits of Scalzi’s wry but affable sense of humor.

And, at first The End of All Things seems to have this, too. It follows from the action of The Human Division. Earth’s been betrayed by its presumed defender, the Colonial Union. The Colonial Union has a shaky relationship with the alien-run Conclave and no longer has a resource in the Earth for its Colonial Defense Force. And, something sinister is in the works, the result of collusion between humans and aliens. That collusion is discovered, investigated and, I assume, thwarted in The End of All Things, which Scalzi structures as a series of four linked novellas, told in a variety of voices, beginning with Rafe Daquin, pilot of the starship Chandler and a brain in a box. Daquin’s voice — which is all he has, of course — comes across with a sense of humor about his situation as he outlines his compulsion to tell his story — to help the Colonial Union, and maybe, just maybe get a fresh body.

“I’m not a writer or an orator,” Daquin reports. “I’m not a storyteller. I’m a spaceship pilot, so let me just get that right out there.” His story isn’t going to be “classic literature” (though the voice is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye); instead, you’ll have to bear with him because his story is going “to skip around. I’m going to get lost telling the story and come back to points and then get lost again. I’m doing this off the top of my head.”

That last sentence is classic Scalzi humor. But the voice and its narrative thrust is what drives this first novella. It’s highly readable, entertaining stuff. Just the kind of thing you’d expect from Scalzi.

Where the book lost me is in the next section, told from the point of view of one of the aliens of the Conclave. This should be the most compelling and interesting part of the novel, but no matter how hard I tried in reading it, this portion didn’t and couldn’t hold my interest.

Primarily, it’s because the narrative and a compelling voice gets lost in lengthy bits of dialogue. About 90 percent or more of the section is dialogue, or rather talking heads. None of the characters — alien or human — are distinct, other than some science-fiction babble of made up measures of time and new words for food. (Of course, not to single Scalzi out, this is a problem of much science fiction, whether on the page or screen, especially handling aliens, which aside from outward appearances are all too human.) Still, this section pretty much violates everything we writers have been taught about dialogue.

Dialogue in fiction and nonfiction has many roles, one of which is to give characters or subjects a voice, so we as readers get a feel for who they are. In other words, it characterizes characters and shows (remember, show, don’t tell) relationships between characters.

Dialogue can also be used to move the action along, but as Hallie Ephron notes in her book Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, “Not everything your characters say belongs in dialogue. It’s better to summarize and fast-forward through the necessary but unexciting bits than risk bogging down your story with trivial talk.…Only use dialogue when it’s dramatic, when it moves the story along, or when it develops characters and their relationships. Never force a character to deliver a speech about himself or another character, or why something is happening.”

As I say, almost the whole of the middle section of The End of All Things uses dialogue primarily to summarize and present what could be best left to expository or descriptive narration and makes scenes of potential political intrigue boring. Scalzi also could show us his science-fiction writing chops and give us the unique voice of an alien species tasked to be an ambassador caught up in an intrigue between human factions. The only time within the section the alien ambassador seems alien is when it describes to another alien how the young of its species are cannibalistic, and how this is a good thing for the species.

The section reminds me of soap opera characters narrating their actions at the first part of the show — just in case you missed the last episode — as if we’re not intelligent enough to pick up the story through visual clues or through regular dialogue. Get on with the show. As a reader and writer, it’s frustrating to see good writers like Scalzi do this sort of thing.

Scalzi’s not, of course, the only writer guilty of this. It seems to appear often in genre writing. China Mieville, for instance, does it in his otherwise superb novel The City & The City, a blend of science fiction and mystery. As the novel climaxes hero Inspector Borlu confronts villain Professor Bowden and in a long expository dialogue, Bowden explains his villainy:

Borlu, I can kill you where you stand and, do you realise, no one will even know where we are. If you were in one place or the other they might come for me, but you’re not. The thing is, and I know it wouldn’t work this way and so do you but that’s because no one in this place [the novel is set in two cities that share the same dimensional space; it is illegal for each city’s citizens to even acknowledge the other’s existence], and that includes Breach, obeys the rules, their own rules…

…And so on for a full paragraph. Soap opera villains do this, as do comic book villains and many villains in TV crime dramas. They explain their madness. It’s distracting, and often boring.

Still, I have to say, as I typed this excerpt from The City & The City, I caught unique speech patterns from the professor. He seems to be unraveling as his plot unravels. Or maybe he’s buying time? So, there is some redemption to this and shows that even as Mieville slips into a clichéd genre convention, he’s a capable writer.

But, generally, long swaths of reported speech like this should be avoided in fiction, and nonfiction, as well. Long quotes in nonfiction should convey some important information that otherwise can’t be summarized. Otherwise summarize. Or find your book back on the library shelves, unfinished.

— Todd