Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 22:20 on 04-02-2016, Arthur B
I'd say that the Force is more about believing in yourself than exclusively consisting of believing in yourself - it's not that you get all these special new capabilities just by believing in them, it's more that you had them all along but you couldn't use them because you didn't believe, if you see what I mean.

But either way, I'm kind of on Michal on this one. Also, what could the Force possibly be which wouldn't be disappointing at this stage?

A deep, rich, complex theology is hardly what the series to date has led me to expect. It is probably too late to add one in, and if they did that it would be kind of tonally inconsistent even if they managed to make it fit the facts. So a simple explanation is what is called for, and if that doesn't satisfy you, then I dunno what to say except that if you were hoping for something a bit more baroque and erudite you're looking in the wrong universe.
at 21:07 on 04-02-2016, Michal
And if the force is meant to be just believing in yourself, it is not very interesting in my opinion and rather disappointing.

Which means that's probably *exactly* what George Lucas had in mind.
at 19:53 on 04-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Well, why not. If we allow all the what ifs then why not. But surely you must admit that that does take a lot of explaining things just so. Which I guess is possible, since we saw it in the film. Still doesn't explain how Rey did stuff she didn't know were a possibility, which seemed there to just underline Rey's capabilities. But of course it could be explained that she just figured it out, since Ren had just used the force to try and invade her mind and she just inferred.

But is such perfect control of one's mind without any previous experience or knowledge that the force works in this fashion really such a credible thing and not cutting corners? If the force works by just one's trust in what is possible to do with the force, that would still require some knowledge. And if the force is meant to be just believing in yourself, it is not very interesting in my opinion and rather disappointing. But I guess it is not unprecedented. But Yoda's cryptic statement could easily be seen as just the sort of thing any pop-zen master says to the pupil in order to demonstrate their own mastery. It doesn't actually need to mean that the whole measure of the skill in question is belief and no experience or practice is required.

But I guess the explanation for Ren's cock-up is alright. I still can't really say that I liked it much. That whole planet business was a bit of a let down, to be honest. Among others. Isn't it kind of proof of a problem in plotting, when it requires a short essay with refernces to how the earlier mythos might support it to explain it? But fun though, like being in a theological dispute.
at 15:39 on 04-02-2016, Arthur B
Why does everyone forget that Ren had been shot in the gut with Chewbacca's bowcaster, which is demonstrated to us over and over and over again as being one of the most powerful projectile weapons in the movie, and has keep hitting himself in his wound in order to even keep conscious (endorphins being a wonderful thing for that purpose) when he is having the fight?

Why don't people complain about Luke holding out as long as he does in his duel against Vader in Empire Strikes Back, when Vader has a decades-long head start in saber training and Force use and Luke's training is woefully incomplete? Sure, Luke doesn't have a good time in that fight, but by rights Vader should have had him disarmed in seconds.

Also, it's not like Rey spontaneously activates a mind probe without prompting or any experience in Force-based telepathy. First there is the interrogation sequence, where it seemed clear enough to me from their emoting that Ren started out with the mind probe, Rey put up a wall of resistance as an instinctive response, then she found that she could use that wall to push Ren out of her mind, then she found she could push a little further into Ren himself. It's only later that she tries to apply that to the stormtrooper, and it's established early on that she is a fangirl of the old legends of the Jedi and Luke Skywalker so presumably she's as familiar with the concept of the Jedi mind trick as any of us are.

Consider this: maybe Force training is not and never has been about developing Force abilities like they are teachable skills. Let's entertain the notion the training is instead a matter of overcoming the doubts and ingrained assumptions that stop you using these abilities in the first place.

Luke never had any "shoot very accurately without using a targeting computer" Force training - Obi-Wan just told him he could do it if he tried, and he believed Obi-Wan and he did it. Yoda seriously thought that Luke, despite the early stage of his training, might in fact be able to lift his X-Wing out of the swamp by using the Force - Luke fails because he doubts himself and Yoda succeeds because Yoda has absolute faith in his own ability to do it.

This is why both Obi-Wan and the Jedi Academy use the bucket-on-the-head method of teaching people to use their Force senses. It's not about learning to use a sense that has atrophied and needs training and work to make it function - it's about overcoming the assumption which you have worked with since birth that your physical senses are the only ones you have. Once you believe you can block the little zappy droid's zaps with your lightsaber without seeing it, then you will be able to do it; if you don't believe you can do it, you never will.

And that is why Rey is able to hold her own against Ren in a lightsaber duel, and overcome his telepathic probe, and use a force ability she has not been specifically taught. When it comes to the crunch, Rey is able to act without doubt, whilst Ren is full of doubts.

We have been told this quite specifically by Yoda. "Do, or do not. There is no try."

Taken in this light, a heap of stuff makes perfect sense. The Force is basically all about "believing in yourself", a value which may be hokey and sentimental but is also 100% Hollywood right down to the core. This is consistent whatever your status; more or less all the significant Dark Side Force users we have ever encountered believe implacably that they have the power to enact their iron will. Kylo Ren is the major exception, which is what makes his inherent doofiness a necessary and important part of his character; it is explicitly stated in the film that he needs to do something to lay his doubts to rest definitively if he is ever going to progress.
at 13:57 on 04-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
The Sithbringer aspect would explain it to some degree, yes. But I really don't have anything against Rey's skillset as such, if those skills are something she would have. But disregarding the lightsaber-variation of the argument for now, I don't think the thing with the force usage is really about academy vs. autodidactism (has that particular group embraced Rey?), but really the concept of the force as a skill. So I guess, if someone is "srong2 or whatever, they could resist whtever that Ren guy was trying to do, but if she had no prior knowledge of the force, what it can do, or what she can do, how was she able to use the force on that Stormtrooper (which Abigail Nussbaum noted in her review)? And going by the idea, that experience actually matters in addition to the potential, her just defeating Ren in a duel was a bit too much, with him being able to stop a blaster round in midair and all. I mean, it lessens the potential threat of Ren as well, doesn't it? And what happens with Luke? After a week she's like "Hey, the second thing I did with the force was mindfuck a stormtrooper and that took you what, 2-3years to do? Yeah, I think were done here. I'll go and burst a sun with my mojo. Don't worry, it'll be an dark sun, I'm sure." It just kinda goes against the idea of the ability to control the force being a skill in general, something that has to be learned, that is something that one has to invest some time in. And I think that was an idea of how the ability worked, right? That there is a difference between being "strong in the force" and being able to do varied stuff with it.

Finn was okay, if a bit of a vague character. And I missed his magical dog as well. Jake the Dog and Finn the (ex-)trooper, The fun will never end, It's Star Wars time!
at 11:29 on 04-02-2016, Arthur B
Maybe we already have and we haven't noticed.
at 11:21 on 04-02-2016, Bill
You're tempting fate here. Do we really need a Moorcock Star Wars novelization with Luke covered in layers of Eternal Champion and multiverse bullshit?
at 10:57 on 04-02-2016, Arthur B
I mean, think about it: Anakin, bearing that lightsaber, killed most of the people he loved and alienated the others, and it took him to the point of utter destruction. Luke was seriously trying to kill Vader at the end of Empire, and was only able to walk away definitively from the path of hate once he lost it. Luke also has this deep look of foreboding when Rey shows up to offer him the saber back, which becomes much more meaningful if you see it as Luke rueing the return of this particular bad penny.

No spoiler tags because if seeing Star Wars unspoiled was a big deal to you but you still haven't seen it yet then either you're being lazy as fuck or you've got enough higher-priority things going on in your life that Star Wars probably doesn't seem that important in context anyway.
at 10:51 on 04-02-2016, Arthur B
I don't mind BB-8 being reactive because a) the droids were always kind of the Greek chorus of Star Wars anyway and b) if someone is going to be mostly reactive in the party I'd rather it be a droid than Finn or Rey, both of whom won me over massively.

I don't get the complaints about Rey's extensive skillset. She's been fending for herself in an outpost occupied by a baffling variety of aliens and scavenges starship parts for a living. Learning self-defence skills, a wide scattering of languages, and how starship engineering works are all perfectly appropriate things for her to pick up along the way. The only really mysterious "why is she that competent?" issue is her capability to resist and turn around Kylo Ren's force interrogation without formal training, but frankly trashing the idea of a formal Jedi Academy with organised classes in favour of Force use being something you discover within yourself, either by yourself or with the help of a guide, works just fine for me - and Force stuff works perfectly as a mysterious "there's something more going on here" thing.

Naughty fan theory: so, the lightsaber used by Anakin and Luke alike is almost a character in itself by this point. It literally summons Rey with the wails of a screaming child, and shows her glimpses of all sorts of things connected to its past bearers.

I like to imagine that the screaming child is one of the younglings massacred in Revenge of the Sith. And I especially like to imagine that Disney secretly got Michael Moorcock to consult on the movies, and the saber in question is this dimension's local incarnation of Stormbringer.
at 02:03 on 04-02-2016, Fishing in the Mud
I would like to say that this Kylo Ren is so laughable that I can't find him scary, but I honestly can't say that. He hits just the right note of nerdboy sociopath convinced that feminism has ruined his life. The Hayden Christensen bridge has been burned regardless, but I don't think he could have managed to hit that note for me.
at 22:49 on 03-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
The dichotomy between light and dark is a simplistic thing and it is a shame that it came out that way. Approaching it from a gnostic view point is actually much better, especially with the added sort of pop or fantasy culture mysticism and orientalism put on top of it. And of course it is combined with a sort of faustian idea too, that the descend into the dark side is a sort of deal with the devil and boundaries are crossed for the sake of achieving an end that is misguided in the first place. Also, the idea that the descend happens through uncontrolled emotions is a good one. Interestingly, with all this talk of petulant raging, the sith lords of the original three had their shit together quite admirably. Darth Vader was controlled and very unfazed by pretty much everything. And the emperor was very controlled too. And Vader's salvation came through succumbing to his parental emotions. So, good space monk -> emotional turmoil -> bad space monk -> emotional turmoil -> good space monk. And really, I think the thing works through states of mind rather than accumulation of karma or sin, which makes Vader's crimes irrelevant to the mental state he was in when he died. The rather heavy handed way they are doing it with this Ren fellow is very annoying.

But I guess I chose to focus on the robot, because the new movie itself was amusing enough, but was just so much doing the same thing again and so blatantly, that it his hard to really grasp at anything more concrete. I'm happy the movie is doing well and its great that the protagonists are more diverse, but all in all it was just so flat. The new robot doesn't do anything. The stormtrooper guy does stuff, but for unknown reasons. The chosen one is the worst kind of chosen one, the kind that just knows stuff, because they're chosen. One of the strong points of the original trilogy was that it made its world building deeper by referencing the passing of time quite well also. So the wizardry is more credible, when it actually takes a significant amount of time to learn the magic. At first, he was clearly unskilled, doing the only trick with the help of the space monk ghost (destroying the death star). Next, he is training, but is clearly far from mastering anything. And finally he becomes a master after at least some years have passed.

So if someone just knows how to do stuff, it lessens the impact of the skill and is kin of nonsensical anyways. Same thing ruined Kung-Fu Panda for me. Yeah, so I guess some things did bug me about the new movie... but in the end, not really that much. It was alright, but nothing more. Which I don't really know why I expected it to be or why it even should be more.
at 18:15 on 03-02-2016, Robinson L
@James: ... And some of the most prominent insurgents come from the desert ...

@Daniel: Yeah, I'm not sure how that happened. I agree the Expanded Universe is too niche to be responsible, and that our Western obsession with Manichaean binaries is a more likely culprit, but maybe doesn't tell the whole story. It'd be an interesting topic for a bit of pop culture archeology. I do feel like the language use may be partly to blame as well, because to me, referring to "sides" implies two equal portions which are opposed in some fashion.

@Janne: Sorry I didn't get to you before, but I meant to say that even though it didn't bother me, I see where you're coming from with BB-8. Artoo was a very proactive character, but BB-8 is almost entirely reactive.

Anyway, the more I think about, the more I think I know who would have been a much better actor to play Kylo Ren and to bring out those qualities mentioned in the "Dorks Awaken" essay: Hayden Christensen. The biggest complaints about his portrayal of Anakin after all (whiny, petulant, emotionally unstable) are precisely the traits which define the Kylo Ren character. The key difference being that unlike Driver, Christensen could still pull off being legitimately threatening when he needed to (slaughtering Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones, slaughtering kids and battling Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith).

I've even joked in the past that casting Driver might have been a stealthy attempt on Abrahms' part to rehabilitate Christensen, but the more I think about it, the more it fits. And hey, as long as they were ripping off Darth Vader's character arc for him anyway ... (I think that's the one element of the movie which really, genuinely, and truly pissed me off.)
at 10:35 on 03-02-2016, James D
thank goodness they went with that stereotype, rather than "Middle Eastern terrorist" - what a trainwreck that would have been

Yeah, what would that have been like? A small group of young male insurgents who believe in a weird religion and who hate a vastly more powerful oppressive nation plot to blow up one of its giant symbolic installations. Though most of them die in the process they succeed against all odds, but immediately afterwards their leaders are forced to go deep into hiding as a galaxy-wide manhunt begins.

That would've been terrible! ;)
at 23:48 on 01-02-2016, Daniel F
I can't help but find the bit about "the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory" doubly interesting in terms of pop culture mythologies, if only because if you actually go back and watch the Star Wars films (not including TFA, which I have not seen myself), you will notice that no 'Light Side' is ever mentioned.

It's really quite bizarre. If you just go from the OT and PT, there is no such as the Light Side. There is only the Force, in a vaguely monistic way that waffles its way in between the Brahman and Abraham's God. Per the films only, Star Wars' morality is not actually dualistic. There is only the Force/life/goodness/whatever, and evil is to defect from it. The closest you get to any idea of a 'light side' is in the occasional somewhat confused quote from Luke, e.g. "How am I to tell the good side from the bad?"

Yet it has somehow become a pop culture truism that Star Wars is about a dualistic conflict between Light Side and Dark Side, which are epitomised by Jedi and Sith.

On the one hand, it's tempting to blame the EU for that, since everything from comics to video games embrace that framework, but that might be overstating the influence of materials that most of the public never looked at. My speculation would be that it's something to do with the way contemporary Western cultures think about morality, and that we've somehow applied a cheap Manichaean heuristic so deeply even to the point that we hold up Star Wars as an exemplar of something it doesn't really show. But that doesn't explain why Star Wars.
at 22:30 on 01-02-2016, Robinson L
Thanks for sharing, Arthur. Good read, and well reasoned for the most part. I especially liked this line:

All pain is sympathetic, but many actions taken as the result of pain, and maybe even most of them, are not.

As for the main substance of the article: I remember there was a podcast discussion somewhere of how Darth Vader was the embodiment of "The Man," the biggest social fear of late 70s/early 80s in the US; and how Kylo Ren is the embodiment of the modern social fear: the frustrated, unstable, entitled young man with a gun on a killing spree (in which case, thank goodness they went with that stereotype, rather than "Middle Eastern terrorist" - what a trainwreck that would have been). This is a pretty good breakdown of how Kylo Ren works in that role.

Mind you, I do think Kylo Ren is one of the movie's weak points, but not precisely because he's uncool. Not even because he's utterly laughable when you see his face and hear his voice without the mask. In the right hands, you could make a character who is at times pathetic and even laughable scary and a serious threat: that's basically the spree killer profile as the author notes. The problem is that while Kylo Ren is obviously supposed to be menacing, whenever I see Adam Driver's face and hear his voice, I cannot take him at all seriously. Even when he's doing kind of dangerous things, he exudes this aura of wimpiness where I can't find him the least bit scary.

the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory.

I took "pop-culture ethics" to refer to "how we use pop culture in discussions of ethics"; and in the sense of how we refer to people and organizations as "going to the Dark Side" as a shorthand for engaging in behavior which we view as reprehensible, I think it's probably an accurate observation.

Arthur: The way the guy goes on about how life just keeps sucking after high school feels to me as though he is taking his own personal experiences and trying to present them as a universal truth, which is a bad move in general but is particularly difficult to go along with in the context of what he's criticising in the article.

Throughout the piece, I felt like he was talking about a certain subgroup of white, straight, male nerds rather than the collective nerd experience, or even the collective white, straight, male nerd experience. I didn't see him as making a universal claim about the the kind of expectations straight white male nerds had coming out of high school, or feeling left out because there are no white guys among the new crop of protagonists, or a bunch of other items. I figured he was talking about the kind of white male nerd who's a high risk of becoming an internet troll, or, in extreme cases, a mass murderer. And I can believe those guys have had a difficult and disappointing time coming out of high school.

(My life experiences have hardly been typical, but yeah, suffice it to say it's gone through many improvements and transformations after what would've been high school if I'd ever gone. As with most people, I suspect, it's been a series of ups and downs, not things just generally sucking.)
at 18:35 on 01-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
"the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory."

I would think that the sort of dualism that Star Wars so incoherently puts out is actually not very significant in any sort of ethics. Talking philosophy wise, isn't Star Trek a much better take on ethics, pop-culture or otherwise. Of course it does raise a question of what the hell pop-culture ethics are supposed to be. I guess Matrix is the most important contribution to pop-culture ontology then. What of logic and epistemology?

My main peeve about the movie, BTW, which is not really that important,I guess, but is symptomatic of some shallowness in the new characters, is BB-8. One of the cool things about R2-D2 was that it was not a beeping puppy with a memory stick, just reacting to stuff like emojis, but it actually did all sorts of stuff. It started to crack Death Star immediately and both found the princess and saved them from the garbage crusher, but further on it also fixed the Millenium Falcon and did all sorts of important stuff. At times it seemed that it was the only thing who actually had a real idea about what was happening. But BB-8 is just a pet. I do not know why that disappoints me so.
at 16:52 on 01-02-2016, Ichneumon
Honestly, the "life sucks after high school" meme is one of those weird, vaguely creepy, vaguely sad things that you hear from all sorts of people, particularly the parents of high schoolers, but it's interesting (read: jarring) to hear it coming from someone who seems to buy into the "nerdy kids get bullied by the cool kids" cliché as well. There is some curious cognitive dissonance at work in that.
at 11:54 on 01-02-2016, Arthur B
Partly that, but mostly the way he very overtly displays the assumption that nerds are teased in school and get sand kicked in their faces by the cool kids, whilst at the very same time trying to chide geek culture for its persecution complex.

Then again, the way he talks about how the positive attention parents promise you will get after you graduate high school never manifests suggests a slightly unfortunate personal history, so maybe I'm being a bit hard on the guy.

In my experience, the trick to having a much more positive time of it after leaving school is to recognise your new freedom to actively associate with people you like and get on with and avoid the company of people you don't really have anything in common with, and to grab that opportunity tightly and run with it. That's where the positive attention starts coming in.

The way the guy goes on about how life just keeps sucking after high school feels to me as though he is taking his own personal experiences and trying to present them as a universal truth, which is a bad move in general but is particularly difficult to go along with in the context of what he's criticising in the article.
at 01:28 on 01-02-2016, Bill
"the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory."

Is this what you mean by indulging massively in nerd self-mythologizing? Because I had a hard time taking him seriously after that (although he does make some interesting arguments.)
at 20:57 on 31-01-2016, Arthur B
(Though I don't dig the way the essay slams nerd self-mythologising whilst at the same time indulging in it massively.)
at 20:31 on 31-01-2016, Arthur B
The best essay about Kylo Ren I've read so far.

Spoilers for The Force Awakens, though frankly if you were invested enough in the movie that spoilers would ruin your day you should really have seen it by now.
at 17:06 on 16-01-2016, Ichneumon
"You try telling the young people today that, and they'll be highly sceptical..."
at 15:40 on 16-01-2016, Arthur B
In honour of Alan Rickman, The Toast has dug up the version of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch he did with Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves and Eddie Izzard for Amnesty International's 2001 charity show.
at 18:26 on 15-01-2016, Ichneumon
I remember watching Dan Olson/Folding Ideas' video about the creepy reactionary core of the Gators' ideas and movement, and thinking about how eerily the whole attitude towards gender, race, and sexual orientation exhibited by such folk mirrors Wagner's proposed "annihilation" of Jewishness—which is to say, mass self-abnegation and total cultural assimilation rather than literal extermination. (Translating blustery German Romantics "literally" is an extremely bad idea; the basic principle is alarming enough.)