Category Archives: current events

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“Is it better than Episode VII?” my brother asked via text, more or less immediately after I walked out of the theater. I was still digesting what I had seen.

I thought about it. I talked about the movie with other people. I read about it. It’s only been about 48 hours, but I think I have answer: yes, The Last Jedi is better than The Force Awakens – not just on its own merits, but also what it establishes for the Star Wars universe as a whole.

Spoilers below. These are scattered thoughts without much explanation or summary, so it might not make sense without seeing the movie.

Negative stuff first, because it’ll be quick: it could have been 30 minutes shorter. The Last Jedi is 2.5 hours, and it absolutely feels that way. The sidequest on Canto Bight had an important message and great character development, for sure, but it felt like a strange detour from the overarching story and probably could have been omitted. Sometimes the pacing of the story felt off, and some situations felt like pure fan-service (not necessarily a criticism, just an observation). There are also a few jokey moments that might not hold up on a second viewing, especially with the porgs as (admittedly very cute) comic relief. Some folks complained that this is the “Disney-fication” of the series, but the original trilogy had its share of these moments, too. It would be a bummer to endure 2.5 hours of war and dying religions and family melodrama. Besides, it just feels good to laugh in a theater where everyone else is also laughing, even if the jokes are a little silly.

Now that that’s out of the way, the remainder of this post is dedicated to what I really liked about The Last Jedi, and in particular what stood out to me after one viewing. I will rewatch this movie before Episode IX’s release in 2019, and I’m curious to see how these first impressions hold up over time.

First things first: I was dying to know who Rey’s parents were. It felt like the entire theater was at the edge of its seat as Kylo Ren tormented Rey with this information. The reveal was not what I was expecting at all. It was perfect. I think the Star Wars franchise needed this to sustain itself. If we trust what Kylo Ren had to say – and I think we should, at least for now – Rey’s parents are nobodies, not any part of these enduring Star Wars lineages. Instead, Rey’s rise from obscurity is a powerful and completely necessary development, reminding us that a new hero can come from anywhere, even a backwater like Jakku. This point is driven home by the final scene of the movie, in which a child on Canto Bight grabs a broom using the Force (now affectionately dubbed Broom Boy by the internet) and gazes up at the stars while the camera focuses on the Resistance signet given to him by Rose.

One of my biggest ongoing issues with the Star Wars universe is that the Sith are not credible or relatable villains. Rarely do they demonstrate motivations that outsiders can relate to. “Kill them all” is one-dimensional and meaningless without emotional context, and no previous Star Wars films did this convincingly – yes, even Episode VII. In fact, I think part of the reason that Episodes I-III failed so spectacularly was not only because of Jar Jar and bad acting – they failed in forcing the audience to truly empathize with Anakin. We need to see not only how he came to choose the dark side, but to be able to put ourselves in his shoes and think, yeah, if that had been me, I might have done the same thing.

Here, in The Last Jedi, we see how perception matters more than objective reality: Kylo Ren glimpsed his master’s dark machinations, spooking him enough to reject everything that Luke stands for. Can’t we all relate to betrayal by someone we trust, someone we thought had all the answers? Kylo Ren’s dilemma is one of the most significant takeaways from this movie. It’s something we can forgive him for, which puts us precisely in the same position as Rey. It makes him a great antagonist and a great character. I never thought I’d say that after seeing Episode VII.

In a similar vein, I thought that Rey and Kylo Ren’s psychic connection across space and time was hugely beneficial for both of their characters, and it left me desperately eager to find out who was going to be the dominant influence. But while it was a great device for character development, I wasn’t convinced by Snoke’s motives in linking the two. How could he have not seen how conflicted Kylo was and how easily an outside influence, especially one sympathetic to Luke, could have further exasperated his turmoil? I’m also not yet onboard with the romantic angle that other fans seem to have seen. The two have great chemistry, made abundantly clear during their joint fight scene against Snoke (more on this later), but the power play between the two – their separate and shared suffering, their allegiances to opposite but somehow, sometimes overlapping ideals, their competing destinies – strikes me as much more compelling. Rey and Kylo seem to be two halves of one whole, but to what degree, I’m not yet sure.

There are two scenes that deal with the past that I’d like to talk about, because I think they mirror each other in some ways.

The first is Luke’s attempt to burn down the tree which housed Jedi religious texts, which he had carefully preserved despite his voluntary rupture with the Force. He hesitates, torch in hand. An apparition of Yoda intervenes – not to stop Luke, but to finish what he started, summoning a bolt of lightning to set the tree aflame. Luke tries to run inside to salvage the texts but is forced back by the blaze. Luke grieves over the loss of ancient Jedi wisdom, but Yoda sets the record straight, reminding Luke of a sentiment he himself had just recently expressed to Rey: the dangerous deification of the past. This was some striking symbolism – literally setting fire to the holiest of holies – and at first it seemed like a hilarious middle-finger to purist fanboys. All that you hold sacred is gone, gone, gone, destroyed by the very arbiter of those truths! But there was more at play here, I think. It established a theme that would arise between Rey and Kylo Ren later: mistakes aren’t cause for complete erasure, to start over and pretend like the past never happened. “Failure is the greatest teacher,” Yoda says. Go ahead and hold something dear, but see it for what it is: imperfect, mired in mixed motivations, but worthy of improving upon going forward – a direct reflection of the Star Wars franchise’s recent rebirth. Learn from the past. Do better in the future.

The second scene comes after Kylo Ren betrays Snoke and, together with Rey, issues a spectacular beat-down to his security team. Rey assumes Kylo Ren is repentant and ready to turn a new leaf, but he has other plans: to join with Rey, light and dark together, and start a new order, a similar agenda to his grandfather before him. Rey begs him to save the Resistance, the remains of whom were being bombed out of the sky as they retreated from their final spent cruiser, but Kylo Ren is firm. Let them all burn, he says, the First Order, the Resistance, the Jedis, the Sith, their families, the past. It is time for the new generation to take their place. Rey, of course, rebukes him, pleading with him to join her and the Resistance instead. They enter a stalemate portrayed visually by a force-battle for Luke’s lightsaber which neither of them win – another piece of powerful symbolism. Rey, too, has a painful history of betrayal and abandonment, yet she is the only one with a plan for the future that doesn’t demand destruction of the past. She wants to carry the good forward and leave the bad behind, in its proper place, while both Kylo and Luke can’t foresee the next step without a clean slate, perhaps a symptom of their lingering regrets. Even as Leia gives up on her son, Rey continues to embody reconciliation with the past and forgiveness of mistakes. She is the spark of hope.

This next part is going to generate some wailing and gnashing of teeth, but don’t @ me. Look, representation matters. It really does. And if you disagree, consider the possibility that you’ve always been represented. The way you feel when you see an abundance of characters who don’t look like you – well, that’s everyone else’s experience, all the time. You’ve probably never felt the surge of joy in seeing someone who looks like you, for once, portrayed heroically on the big screen. (Rose’s sister’s valiant death, and later Rose’s intervention on Finn’s suicidal plan, struck a particularly emotional chord with me.) As a white woman, this is something I can relate to only in a small way. I always had Leia, for example, revered princess and general, to look up to, though back in the original trilogy, she was a lonely island in a sea of white, male faces. Now, seeing lady fighter pilots and admirals and even First Order soldiers gave me a rush of exhilaration. Can you imagine how people of color, especially children experiencing Star Wars for the first time, must feel? It is direct, visual evidence that this movie, this world, this struggle: you’re part of it, too. The Last Jedi is more representative than ever, and despite what cranky pissbaby fans might say, this makes the Star Wars series much more realistic and convincing. It is a big, wide universe out there. It can represent all of us. It should.

I’m glad we got a final meeting between Luke and Leia. It was all the more tragic remembering Carrie Fisher’s recent passing, which leads me to this: we know that Leia, too, has to die. This is what I expected when she was sucked into space from the Resistance cruiser, that she dies alongside her admirals and generals. It would have added to the gravity of the situation and really driven home the point that the Resistance could have been crushed right there, right then. But she didn’t die. Leia’s use of the Force to propel herself to safety was… well, I’m not sure. Not believable? We’ve seen crazier stuff happen as a result of this mysterious space-magic. Not necessary? Then we never would have gotten the aforementioned reunion of Luke and Leia. Leia’s presence was also important for resolving the power-struggle between Poe and Holdo, particularly for the latter’s redemption. I guess the glorious space-death would have been a convenient time to say goodbye to Leia, but the Star Wars franchise thrives on keeping things complicated. I’m curious to see how Leia meets her end in Episode IX.

It hurt my heart to see Carrie Fisher on the big screen, remembering that she has passed away. She was a treasure not just for the series, but for the world.

On a similar note, here is one last theme that I noticed a few times throughout: women intervening on men’s well-intentioned but foolhardy plans. Rey and Kylo. Rose and Finn. Holdo (and Leia) and Poe. Each time, they seem to say: it doesn’t have to be like this. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself or put others at risk. There has to be another way. They represented the voice of moderation in a situations seemed to demand extreme solutions. It’s a different kind of bravery, one that I wish we saw more of.

All in all, The Last Jedi is a fun movie and a great addition to the Star Wars canon. It bridges the gaps between generations (and canonical inconsistencies) in a meaningful way. This is an exciting time to be a fan, even a casual one like me.

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TRANSCRIPT: Notes on an Imagined Plaque… (The Memory Palace, Episode 73)

[Listen to the original episode here.]

This is “The Memory Palace.” I’m Nate DiMeo.

Notes on an imagined plaque to be added to the statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, upon hearing the Memphis City Council has voted to move it and the exhumed remains of General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their current location in a park downtown, to the nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

First, it should be big, the plaque, not necessarily because there’s so much to say, though there is so much to say, but big enough to be noticed on the side of this rather grand monument, after they move it and the bodies beneath it across town to the cemetery. And not just big for the sake of bigness; it needs to stick out as something off, something that disrupts the admirable balance of the statue, currently so tasteful, regal even. This bronze man on this bronze horse. Goatee. Square jaw. You get it. You’ve seen it before, even if you haven’t seen it before.

The statue faces north. The sculptor wanted Forrest to face south, to better catch the light, but people complained, said it would imply that the General was retreating, and he wasn’t a man who retreated. He surrendered once, but if the sculpture faced north, maybe people would forget that part, I guess.

So, anyway, the plaque has to be big enough to catch your eye when you’re checking your cell phone or walking your dog or eating a chicken Caesar salad from a plastic box on a bench, whatever people are doing there in the cemetery, and whatever they might do there in the future. Because that’s why we make these things, right? Plaques, bronze men on bronze horses: we want people in the future to remember, but first we want them to notice.

So let’s think about material for this imagined plaque. Maybe the plaque should be garish. Not intentionally ugly, but necessarily, but like titanium, maybe. A patch of frank, eerie futurism on this stayed, stately old thing. It would catch the light. It would catch the eye. In contrast to the northward-facing brown-green man on his brown-green horse. Or a grey pigeon, alit on his brown-green epaulet.

And I like that the eerie of it all, the futurism, is not at all futuristic. It’s millennial. A decade from now, it’ll be dated, literally dated. Bilbao or Disney Hall or whenever will seem so late-90s, so 2000s. And you’ll scoff. And I want that. I want this plaque to be fixed in time, to let people know when it went up, let people know what was up at the time, because that is the point here. The point of this plaque is to make sure that these future people realize that this lovely old statue wasn’t always old and wasn’t always here in this cemetery.

And, moreover, I want the reader, standing there in the shadow cast by the late, somehow still lamented, Nathan Bedford Forrest, on some future summer Sunday, to know why it wound up in a park on the other side of town in the first place. Because memorials aren’t memories. They don’t just appear upon death. A letter of surrender, signed in some farmhouse at the edge of some battlefield, doesn’t come complete with a historic marker affixed to the door.

The monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest was put in that park downtown for a reason at a specific moment in time. And, at that time, General Forrest and Mrs. Forrest were already buried in Elmwood Cemetery, the same place the city council recently voted to put them. His body and her body were originally dug up from the ground because a group of prominent Memphians thought they were better off somewhere else. That was 1905, 40 years after the war, 30 years after Forrest’s death.

They felt the city needed Nathan Bedford Forrest right then because they had seen that city fall from great heights. Memphis had been left relatively unscathed by the war but not by its outcome, not by the end of the slave trade, that had been one of the economic and cultural pillars of the city. Without the slave market selling men and women and children, without the river boats and crews and suppliers and dock workers sending them up and down the river, Memphis was hardly Memphis anymore. And then there was the Yellow Fever that had swept through the city some years before and killed so many and drove many more away, people who never returned after a mandatory evacuation.

And now it was the turn of the next century and the city was increasingly – let’s just say it, let’s just stop not saying things – increasingly black, and increasingly tense. White businesses did not like competing with black businesses, black people did not like being lynched. This move to move Forrest started not long after Ida B. Wells, a Memphian too, had started writing, rabble-rousing – boldly, bravely – against lynching, after her friend Thomas Moss was improperly imprisoned; after a fight between children over a game of marbles escalated until adults were threatening to burn down a store; and after Moss wound up being pulled from that prison and strung from a tree. And Wells was threatened so much, so often, that she moved away and the paper she had written for burned to the ground.

So wealthy, white Memphis, at the beginning of the 1900s, found all of this unpleasant. So they raised money – $33,000 – not to rebuild that newspaper office, or build a police force that would properly protect all of its citizens, but to make a monument to a man who they thought best represented the Memphis they had lost. A man who had risen from nothing, a blacksmith’s boy, who became a millionaire, and then believed so strongly in the Confederate cause that he enlisted as a private, and went on to prove himself perhaps the most brilliant military man born on American soil, even if he didn’t fight for America. Those are facts. That’s a true story. And they like what this story said about the American dream, even if it wasn’t technically American, even if Forrest’s million was made by buying and selling human beings, and selling cotton raised and picked and cleaned and packed by enslaved human beings, even if the cause for which he employed that military genius was to ensure that men like him could rise up from nothing and make a million dollars buying and selling human beings and stealing their lives and their labor.

In 1905, they held a parade at the unveiling of the new statue and made speeches to honor the northward-facing General. They said nothing of slavery. They said much about heritage and honor and chivalry. They said nothing of how Nathan Bedford Forrest had been the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, nothing of the terror it had wrought. Nothing of the assassinations or the lynchings. Nothing how it sought to undermine and overthrow the nation’s political order, the nation that they celebrated there in Memphis in 1905, when they played the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” right alongside Dixie. They might not have mentioned any of it but they knew it, knew about Forrest and the Klan. They certainly had read “The Klansman” – it was flying off the shelves that year – a novel about heroic men hidden beneath bedsheets out to save white virtue from black barbarians. It was a historical romance – that’s how it billed itself – that looked back longingly to a time not long before when people were still chivalrous, who would stand up against barbarism and miscegenation and instability, and stand up for order, private property.

Who better to represent what they had lost than Nathan Bedford Forrest? They talked about his heroism in battle, though they didn’t talk about the Battle of Fort Pillow, where Forrest ordered the massacre of hundreds of American troops attempting to surrender, most of them former slaves. They talked about his faith instead, his strapping build, and about their own hopes, that future Memphians would gaze upon Nathan Bedford Forrest and be inspired. They even raised some extra cash for a skating rink so that the white children of Memphis could play nearby, in the shadow of this great man, and learn from his shining example, though the bronze wouldn’t shine for long, would brown and green as the symbol of all that was good was exposed to the light of the sun and washed by the rain.

There is debate – there is always debate – about what the Klan meant when Forrest was its Wizard, about his intentions at Fort Pillow. They say Forrest repented his sins and his crimes in his deathbed. Should that be on the plaque? Should it note his regret? I say no. May it have ruined him. May it have corroded him, like rain on bronze. May it have choked him like smoke from the crosses in homes and churches, burned by men who revered him decades and decades later. Revered him, at least in part, because some influential Memphians decided they needed to revere him in this way, in that park, in 1905.

So the plaque should be big, but it can’t be big enough to say all that. Maybe it should just say – maybe they should all say, the many, many thousands of Confederate memorials and monuments and markers, that the men who fought and died for the CSA, whatever their personal reasons, whatever was in their hearts, did so on behalf of a government formed for the express purpose of ensuring that men and women and children could be bought and sold and destroyed at will. Maybe that should be enough.

But I want people to know about those Memphians in 1905 who wanted people to remember Forrest and why, who wanted a symbol to hold up and revere, to stand for what they valued most. I want people to know that that statue stood in downtown Memphis for 110 years, and to remember that memorials aren’t memories. They have motives. They are historical; they are not history itself. I want them to know why it was moved, that in 2015, after Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, and Ethel Lance, and Susie Jackson, and Cynthia Hurd, and Myra Thompson, and Daniel Simmons Sr., and a Depayne Middleton-Doctor, were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. There were people in Memphis who were done with symbols and ready to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest for good.

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