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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/17/12) 4:13pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[oh dear god I haven't posted one of these since Halloween what is wrong with me noooo]

Movies:  Star Wars
TV:  Parks and Recreation [3x01-3x09]
Books:  Heir to the Empire [audiobook]

Star Wars
I re-watched Star Wars as preparation for the Hideout's upcoming run of Fandom.

Star Wars wasn't really a big part of my childhood -- I can't remember the first time I saw it.  Honestly, I remember seeing bits and pieces of all three films, presumably when they were shown on broadcast TV.  I know I must have seen all three films all the way through before their "special edition" re-releases, but I can't point to any specific time that I did.  All of which is to say, I watch the movie now with a certain amount of detachment.  The original trilogy is great, but it's not my childhood. 

Watching it this time around, I mostly picked up on two things.  First off, I knew more about the old pulp-adventure serials this time around, and I could see how absolutely rooted in that (glorious) tradition this movie is -- maybe even more so than Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Secondly, I loved how much they used the "Misty Mountains" technique.  No, that's not the name of an adult-video starlet[1] -- it's a term from a Terry Rossio essay, where he talks about characters in a boat that catch a glimpse of a distant mountain range.  Then maybe one says to the other, "Ah, the Granthlet Mountains.  A hundred years ago, the Floritines and Karrhaks fought to the last man over them.  And now?  Just a few abandoned peaks."

Or something like that.

The point is, you deliver that line, and then *never allude to the mountains again*.  This is because they've already served their purpose, in making this fictional world seem large.  In one neat brushstroke, the world has physical size (because those mountains are so distant), and history (because a hundred years have passed), and different cultures (because we've never heard of these Floritines and Karrhaks, but evidently they're both well-known peoples).  You don't care about the details -- you just want the implication of space.

Star Wars has misty mountains all over the place.  Sure, there's the obvious: "I fought with your father in the Clone Wars."  Okay, Clone Wars exist, and they were years ago, and there was some sort of betrayal involved.  But there are implicit misty mountains too: in the constant stream of jargon, in the profligate variety of creatures lounging in the backgrounds of shots, in the long list of places alluded to but never seen.  Even the dinks and dents and dirt and wear on *everything* in this universe carries with it that implication of age and activity -- the sense that we're just seeing one brief window into a world that existed for a long time before and will exist for a long time afterwards.

It surprised me, going back to this film and seeing how little is actually *there*.  The film's plot is simple, and sturdy, and small.   The film runs a couple of hours, but doesn't overstay its welcome.  Apparently there's a Star Wars comic coming up that takes only episode IV as canon, and jets off in a different direction with it.  Think about that.  In the world of episode IV, Leia and Luke are not siblings, and Vader is not their father.  All we know about the Emperor is that he exists.  All we know about the Clone Wars is that they happened.  Yoda and Boba Fett and Lando and Admiral Ackbar all do not exist.  And all we know about Jabba[2] is he's named Jabba, and that Han owes him money. (A Hutt?  What's a Hutt?)

And on and on and on.

We tend to assume, if we don't really think about it, that all of this was already present in episode IV.  It's like we just can't help backfilling all that information into the first film -- of course all that information must have been there all along; after all, the world of the first film feels so *big*.

It's interesting to contrast this with Star Trek.  To my mind, Trek doesn't have "misty mountains".  In Trek, you introduce an alien planet, you learn the things about it you need to know for that episode's plot to function, and then the planet pretty much goes in the bin.  Sure, this is less true of Deep Space Nine, but that show was Ron Moore champing at the bit before he got to re-imagine Battlestar Galactica.  In those first two series, Trek was *about* its abiding optimism and faith in humanity and progress.  The show created settings to generate stories, stories that would in turn serve that idealism. 

So for Trek to hint at things beyond the frame wouldn't really make sense.  It would just burn time, in an hourlong format that rarely forgives idle discursion.

But Star Wars, at least at this point, feels much more like it's about this sense of wonder that comes from discovering a larger world.  It's almost like everything -- the plot, the characters, the objectives -- are just a clothesline for all these intimations of history and scale.  So of course the plot stays simple and the characters are painted in like bold, primary colors.  There's just enough of a story to show you through this world -- or not even to show it; to just hint that it's there.

Parks and Recreation [3x01-3x09]
This is the third season of the NBC half-hour mockumentary about an idealistic parks-department deputy in a small town in Indiana.

Whew.  You know what's challenging?  Writing anything intelligent about a set of TV episodes you watched two months ago.  But you know what's even tougher than that?  Doing that, when the show in question is Parks and Recreation.  Writing about Parks and Rec is *hard*.[3]  And it's not that it's a bad show -- bad shows are easy to write about.  And it's not that it's a middling show, even though the hardest shows to write about are the ones that inspire an indifferent "meh".  No, this season is one of the best comedies running, in possibly the best season of its run.

So why is it so difficult to write about?

As far as I can tell, Parks and Rec isn't rewriting the rulebook on half-hour comedy or striking out in unprecedented new territory the way, say, Louie is.  It's doing fairly traditional work in the mockumentary subgenre.  It's just doing it exceptionally well.  And there's only so many times you can say "the plots are well-constructed and they have very funny actors playing very sharply-written characters".

Tell you what: when I get around to watching the back half of the season, I'll take notes, and ensure that I have something intelligent to say once I finish it off.  Deal?

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn [audiobook]
This is one of the most successful novels set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and the first of the "Admiral Thrawn" trilogy.

First things first: this is one of the best-produced audiobooks I've listened to, possibly ever.  Marc Thompson, who apparently has something of a career in narrating Star Wars books, does stellar work here, not only re-creating a dozen or so voices from the films, but also introducing a dozen or two more clear and distinct voices for new EU characters.  It's not *flawless* work -- you just have to accept that his Han Solo sounds like Dana Carvey's impression of Tom Brokaw, and move on -- but it's very, very good.  I'm also impressed with the inflections he puts on the prose.  If a character is struggling to (say) escape from a pair of handcuffs, Thompson puts that strain and effort into his voice in the prose describing those actions.  It should be cheesy, but instead it just engages you more firmly in the viewpoint character's state of mind.

On top of this, the audiobook makes wonderful use of the Lucasfilm sound libraries.  The soundtrack underlies nearly everything Mr. Thompson does.  If a scene is set on a Star Destroyer, we get an ambient sound bed of the ship's engines, and perhaps the occasional bleeps and bloops of the bridge consoles.  If R2D2 emits "a disappointing whirr", we hear that exact noise.  If a lightsaber gets activated, we hear the characteristic "kzzhhhhrrrr".

Honestly, the book isn't that great.  As a novelist, Zahn is a great screenwriter.  At least with this book, Zahn doesn't do what modern novelists do.  He doesn't dive into the interior worlds of his characters much; generally if you can't see it or hear it, it doesn't happen in this book.  He's spare with sensory details or exposition of any sort.  His prose style doesn't convey much meaning in and of itself; it's just a delivery system for action and dialog.  So basically, this is a screenplay -- a series of physical actions and lines of dialog -- in prose form.

But here's the interesting part.  That "screenplay-ish" quality that would make it kind of thin gruel as a reading experience is actually a tremendous advantage for the audiobook format.  The thin character descriptions become a boon -- Zahn doesn't specify what Talon Karrde sounds like, so Thompson can create his own sharp take on the character.  And everything is *actable* -- Thompson is either breathlessly recounting physical actions (inflecting those sections with whatever emotions the characters are feeling), or delivering dialog.

Basically, there's a reason screenplays are written the way they are -- they're thin, wispy little blueprints that specify what happens and what is said, and otherwise stay out of everybody's way.  They lay down a foundation, and allow other performers to come in and complete the work as they see fit.  And I feel like the same thing is happening here: Zahn wrote a book that left things wide open, so that the narrator and production engineers could fill out the other half of the picture.

The ironic thing is, I think Zahn has a real talent for giving his characters interiority -- or at least, for giving them minds of their own.  This is one of the first stories I've seen in a long time, in *any* medium, where I genuinely feel like I'm watching smart characters outwit each other.  Sure, we are told Thrawn is a brilliant tactician -- but Zahn also gives him an eight-minute speech where he analyzes ambiguous security footage of the rebels and, using inexorable logic, figures out exactly where they're going.  In a scene where Karrde smoothly discusses trading with an imperial ship, when he accidentally hints that he has taken a prisoner the Empire wants, it's a credible mistake.  And when he covers for the blooper, it's not a bad save.

On top of this, the characters all have their own *ways* of thinking.  Thrawn tends to puzzle things out like everything is a complicated LSAT question.  Han desperately improvises with an eye towards surviving the next five minutes.  Wedge intuitively notices when something is 'off', and patiently investigates until his intellect catches up and figures out what was bothering him.  It's such a relief to see characters *out-think* each other after seeing umpteen stories where, say, the supervillain predicts the hero's next twenety moves because, well, that's more convenient than patiently, page after page, *proving* that your characters are smart.

And the plot of the book works pretty well.  It's pretty much centered around Thrawn effecting a massive Evil Plan to take down the fledgling Republic.  And his plan, once revealed, actually makes tactical sense.  Furthermore, it's just unconventional enough that it makes sense that the good guys aren't able to piece together their intelligence enough to see it coming.  Sure, it often feels like there are only a dozen or so people in the Star Wars universe, with endless contrivances to bring the same characters together again and again -- but these were issues with the original films as well, and shenanigans like that are forgiveable if they result in interesting scenes.

All of this makes the audiobook sound perhaps better than it is.  It's very good, but again, no one will mistake this for literature.  It's just more interesting to me to describe at length its successes than to dwell on the ways it was middling or average.

For next time:  this week I'll be re-listening to my audiobook of A Tale of Two Cities, to prepare for this Friday's Dickens show; after that, on to the next book in the Thrawn trilogy.  I'll move on to The Empire Strikes Back, and hopefully finish The Hunger Games.  (I got halfway through the book before discovering that I wouldn't be in that Fandom show.)

[1] ... or for all I know, it might be.
[2] ... assuming we just ignore that unnecessary added scene.  We ignore that, right?
[3] Please imagine me saying that in the whiniest voice possible.

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Date:Monday (12/17/12) 4:32pm
We DEFINITELY ignore the added scene. I am occasionally saddened to realize that it will be supremely difficult for me to show any future offspring Star Wars before it got fiddled with.
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Date:Monday (12/17/12) 5:06pm
Agreed re: the added scene. Or really anything added at all. You can get the original theatrical releases on DVD (not Blu-Ray); and although they aren't cheap, but I consider a worthwhile investment: http://www.amazon.com/Star-Trilogy-Widescreen-Theatrical-Edition/dp/B001EN71DG/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1355785280&sr=8-5&keywords=star+wars+dvd
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