Thursday, March 19, 2015


As the rather clinical, biological explanation for the Force's mystical properties, the midi-chlorians -- widely disliked and derided by fans near and far -- actually serve as a key thematic underpinning to THE PHANTOM MENACE, in some sense serving, in micro-form, as a miniature represention of the societal machinations that are happening on higher levels of living. A close look at the dialogue and events of EPISODE ONE illustrate the manner in which the story depicts heretofore isolated races and beings strewn across the galaxy being forced to put aside their prejudices for the greater good of the whole, just as the mid-chlorians themselves work together in the body to maximize one's latent Jedi potential.

Throughout the course of the film, varying alien races cast disparaging words on 'outsiders' among them. Near the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to a form of discrimination that will endure throughout all six films of the series -- the blatant disregard for droids and their fate. Worried about the  mortal consequences of engaging in physical combat with the pair of Jedi that have landed on their vessel, the Nemoidian alines, representatives of the Trade Federation, casually remark that they can just send in a droid -- which leads to a slightly startled response from the C-3PO-like robot overhearing these wrods. Droids, being little more than mechanical slaves, are disposable in the STAR WARS universe; you may recall how in A NEW HOPE they are banned from the cantina. Even young Anakin Skywalker, who has spent much of his young life assembling what will become C-3P0, sheds little tears when it comes time to say an emotional good-bye to his project. "I'll make sure Mum doesn't sell you or anything," he says -- words that are delivered with the flippant assurance only a child can possess.

(Tellingly, in this short scene, George Lucas shoots Anakin's good-bye from the POV of C3PO himself -- one of the few times in the entire series that the audience can witness such a 'personal' vantage point. We are literally inside a robot's head at this point, and the result is an oddly humanizing effect; the viewer can feel what it must be like to see the world through these manmade eyes. In a way, being inside his mind, such a gaze gives the droid a dignity that the other characters in the story themselves would never think to extend. Intriguingly, such a POV is repeated  near the end of EPISODE III, where we are suddenly plunged into the viewpoint of Anakin himself as his Darth Vader mask slowly descends and is molded to his face. We are witnessing, through Anakin's eyes, his last moments as 'human', before he too becomes a new form of machine. These POV's are such a rare form of visual and character intrusion in ther series that their mere presence has an emotional effect; in these brief interludes, we see the whole world through the eyes of another -- again, ironically 'humanzing', through C-3PO and Anakin, what is a literal robotic existence.)

Thus, right from the beginning of the film, we are given an example of a kind of casual prejudice. This notion is soon elaborated upon as each now form of alien life is introduced, to the audience and each other.

Jar Jar Binks, a member of the Gungan race of lifeforms from the underwater territories on the planet of Naboo, is initially tolerated, but barely, by Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Even C-3PO is clearly not impressed, at one point stating about Jar-Jar: "I find that Jar Jar creature to be a little odd.") They seem somewhat condescending to his odd gait and form of speaking.

Not that the Gungans are any more hospitable; Jar Jar warns the Jedi that his race doesn't like outsiders, so don't expect a warm welcome when they meet with the chief. Indeed, said leader, Rugor Nass, is quite suspicious not only of the Jedi, but also of the land-dwellers on Naboo; in his, shall we say, distinctive dialect, he mentions how they think that they are so big, while the Gungans are so small. In essence, his pride, and the pride of his people, is hurt by the people of Naboo's obvious disregrad for their race.

Here we have the Jedis (representing a spiritual sect), the Gungans (the plainspoken 'locals', or indigenous tribe of the planet) and the elite of Naboo (representing the royal family and government) all essentially existing as isolated sects of their own, occupying independent worlds that have not had the need to merge before now.

It is Obi-Wan Kenob who senses the need for a kind of communion.He highlights to Rugor Nass a vital theme of the film -- that 'you and Naboo form a symbiont circle'. In essence, in the midst of this trade war, each needs the other to survive, then prosper, and endure.

The word 'symbiont' is repeated when Qui Gon Jinn explains the concept of midi-chlorians to Anakin, who he strongly suspects has powers far beyond his young years. Isolated from the Federation on Tattooine, a desert planet in the Outer Rim of the galaxy, a slave boy, Anakin is the least likely person imaginable to a be a future Jedi master. And not just any Jedi, but the one who might even fulfill the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force. Yet it is within his blood that his destiny is foretold.

(Not that Anakin, either, is free from the distdain of those who care little about other forms of life. Learning of his existence, Obi-Wan quips: "Why do I sense we've picked up another pahetic life-form?" Alluding to the seeming uselessness of Jar Jar Binks, Obi-Wan is not exempt from his own facile prejudice. Ironically, Anakin himself harbors only positive thoughts, proclaiming at one point: "Nobody can kill a Jedi!" Every one has assumptions about the 'outsiders' among them.)

Qui-Gon recognizes the unlikeliness of a boy such as this one being worth much at all. He even remarks that had Anakin been born in the Republic, his talent would have been spotted much earlier. The implication is that Tattooine is a backwater, and that lifeforms on worlds such as this one, on the outer ridges of the universe have little contact with the more 'developed' worlds of the Republic. (This could possibly explain why Han Solo in EPISODE IV believes Jedi to be purely fictional beings; by that point in time, and at that point in space, the Jedi would have no historical relevance to creatures like himself from far-out points in the galaxy.)

Discovered 'by accident' (though Qui-Gon eventually believes he was fated to be found, and his mother admits that he was a 'virgin birth'), Anakin possesses an extraordinarily high midi-chlorian count. When asked what midi-chlorians actually are, Qui Gon explains that they are "symbiont life-forms living together for mutual advantage." This line serves as the key from which we can understand the frame of the film as a whole.

The Force, as explained by Qui-Gon, is thus composed of actively alive organisms within the body that must co-exist together in order to advance.  The higher the midi-chlorian count, the more cells that are engaged in a higher form of co-operation. Given that midi-chlorians help to predict one's potential as a Jedi, you could then argue that one's progression as a Jedi can be read as being able to meld with the 'other' -- essentially 'all living things' --  at a rate that others can't easily replicate.

Earlier in the film, Anakin's mother remarks upon how caring her son is -- that he thinks only of others, never himself. As a person, in society, he is thus embodying  the kind of communal reciprocity that the midi-chlorians in his body are also enacting on a microscopic level of existence.

The midi-chlorians, as a concept, are mentioned only briefly in the film, and, to many, their very presence robs the Force of its spiritual grandeur. Such a criticism is missing an essential point -- that these midi-chlorians (obviously named, I would think, to resemble human 'mitochondria') are actually the cellular emobodiment of the ultimate aim of the Force -- a oneness with everything, each entity benefiting from the other, thereby adding to the progress of everything around us. All creatures possess this capacity, on a biological level; elevating it to the powerful level which a Jedi must reach simply extends this notion into higher notions of physical and spiritual capacity.

Anakin, the boy who thought only of others, had a higher midi-chlorian rate than anyone had ever seen, which merely meant that his potential for mutual cooperation and assistance was hard-wired from the start. Yet it still had to be honed, controlled, nurtured. That is what this first trilogy is about -- Anakin's ultimately unsuccessful journey to actualize, in life, what the midi-chlorians are already enacting in his physical body.

 Lucas uses the midi-chlorians, as a biological reality, to also metaphorically examine how the very nature of societal existence depends on one's ability to co-exist with others for mutual satisfaction. The tragedy of the prequels is that Anakin cannot maintain the potential he exhibited so clearly as a child, that he wielded so effortlessly, that was in-built from the start. The struggle for this mutual co-existence is what will lend Anakin down a path on which his enormous potential and good intentiosn are manipulated and distorted by those who seek selfish control and the domination of others. The prequels' entire saga is thus nothing more than the tale of the disintegration of the very underpinning of the Force, the mid-chlorians writ large, gradually separated and scattered.

Yet, in THE PHANTOM MENACE, all is not yet lost, and it's this 'symbionic' notion of co-operation that threads the whole film together. The Jedis must learn to trust the Gungans; the higher-echelons soldiers and royalty of Naboo (in the form of Queen Amidala) must literally bow down before the Gungan leader and beg for his help; the Gungans must put aside their distrust of the people out-of-water and assert their own bravado.

STAR WARS: EPISODE ONE -- THE PHANTOM MENACE introduces various lifeforms that initially do not get along. The political and legalistic aspects of the story, so often dismissed as boring and superfluous, actually serve to anchor the spiritual journey each set of aliens undertake. The nominal story hinges on disputes over taxation and trade -- which may seem like a rather dry hat on which to hang the start of an epic space-saga, but in these prosaic matters of routine politics and enforcementt we are also examining the fundamental roots of pure greed and selfishness -- spiritual matters that the rest of the films in the series will delve into in depth. Taxation on trade routes, and the inability of one group of beings to want to share their bounty with another, and the steady means by which war is enacted over selfish root causes like these -- notions that serve to underpin (and undermine) the alien co-operation that triumphs in spite of these tangled desires of plain greed.

By the end of the film, the 'symbiont' relationship between species that Obi-Wan Kenobi stressed ealrier in the film  has been achieved, if only for a moment. The Gungans have gained the respect of Naboo and the Jedi on the battlefields; Anakin has overcome his slave past and become a figher-pilot hero; the Jedi Council have (albeit reluctantly) allowed a slave-boy from an Outer Rim planet to be trained as one of their own; and all now stand united on stage at the climax of their victory parade, the spiritual, and 'primitive', and political, united. The midi-chlorians -- those microscopic, biological elements existing in the physical realm --  have now had their cosmological components writ large on a societal scale -- 'symbiont life-forms living together for mutual advantage' as Qui-Gon once explained to Anakin. The basic beauty of the ending is that this notion of true togetherness has materialized and bisected itself across variously alien lines of initial distrust. The true tragedy is that the audience knows (or suspects) that such a delicate co-existence can't last all that long.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


I wonder what people thought about life before images of others could be seen on a screen. Most of humanity is constantly attempting to improve, modify, shake-up their lives based on what others around them appear to be doing, thereby accentuating or alterting key aspects of their personality and appearance to ingratiate themselves into the kind of close fit they think perfect strangers might like. And this kind of re-fashioning is usually happening on an unconscious level, down deep, based, in part, on what various photographic and electronic representations of humanity seem to find necessary. It's all a bit much.

Less than two hundred years ago, before photography had been invented, one's entire passage through the years pretty much unfolded unfiltered. Meaning, you had life as it was, directly around you -- 'the six inches, in front of your face', as Al Pacino says in ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. The only people you glimpsed were real people, actual people, ones whose faces you could, if you so wished, reach out and stroke, pinch, punch. All the human emotions we daily struggle to access and comprehend had a physical corollary, in that the only 'other' out there was a tangible, breathing thing, one that would bear the brunt of our good cheer or grumpy not-now-please. People only knew what presidents, kings and queens looked like through drawings, approximations. If you wanted to gaze upon the latest fashion, or hairstyles, or even facial grooming habits, you had to get out and see how those around you in your town were styling themselves. Perhaps the greatest surprise that many explorers through the ages encountered while traveling in distant lands was seeing, for the first time in their lives, the various facial conttortions of various races. It must have been revelatory, if not spooky -- this face-to-face interaction with foreheads and chins and gaping nostrils that until then had been not only unseen, but unthought of. You were encountering a mode of human whose composition of self was truly its own presentation, period.

Now, people model themselves instinctively based on what flickers before them via two-dimensional surfaces. Justin Bieber wears a certain style of haircut as a teen, and, within months, that exact same swoosh of a part is emulated by thousands of teens across North America. Part of this popularity, in hairstyle terms, certainly must have been because one kid at school saw that the cool one in class had shifted his hair in a way that allowed him to gain a certain cache. Yet that alteration had to do with an image, projected, one of 'coolness' (or 'hotness') that conveyed a manner of superficial address that found millions of teens willing to access its intent. And this communication -- via music videos, and interviews on television talk shows, and pictures on Instagram, or Twitter profile pics -- also, oddly enough, began with a real person, posing, in front of a lens. There was a reality to that hairstyle, It had actual, feelable follicles. It grew on a skull. Yet soon it became something beyond itself, above itself, televisual, and the transmission of its image altered the self-esseteem issues of an entire continent of teens preening in front of mirrors. Reality (the hair) became an image (of hair) whose content was witnessed (by teens) who swiped that image for themselves (in front of mirrors) and managed to make it their own (via real hair). All, essentially, downloaded (literally or mentally) through screens that are not, in actuality, the 'thing' (the original hair of Bieber) itself. Reality's tactile stuff, a necessity for the camera's flash and brief flicker, soon became more image than material.

Of course this kind of aping-phenomena is obviously not limited to insecure teens and their jars of hair-gel. Part of this desire for the 'look' of someone who one has never (or will never) meet is the real-life embellishment of the instinctual need to be 'better' than one's peers, a process that continues on into adulthood, a process whose inevitablity becomes more prominent with each passing month I invite into my slow temporal plod.

(Okay, it's not exactly an 'invitation'; more an 'obligation', I suppose, but I still maintain that we do have to allow, via a kind of mental acceptance, time and its steady minions into our psyche before they're allowed to go to town on our skin.)

Competition with others, to put it simply. The teen thinks: If I have hair like Bieiber, who is cool, than I shall be cool. The adult believes: If I have a nice car and a good house, others will see me as a success.  There is an evolutionary aspect, I suppose, to this continual need to one-up (or keep up with) the 'others' around us, but so much of that drive seems to emerge from plastic sources of glitz. Screens, with images, transporting ideas into our brains that then mingle with those ancient drives that allow us to progress.

Ocassionally I'll dive into an old paperback self-help book that I keep lying around, entitled THE ULTIMATE SECRETS OF TOTAL SELF-CONFIDENCE, by Dr.Robert Anthony, one of those screeds from the Seventies that started a trend that would boom in the Eighties, and, although it's all sort of hokey trash, I find myself believing some of it, and wanting to believe most of ti, because it seems better to do so, and because often the content itself always bends towards what I hope to be truth. On page 25 of my eidtion, Athony writes:

"...All forms of competition are hostile. They may seem friendly  on the surface but the prime motivation is to be do 'better than' the next person. You were placed on this earth to 'create', not to compete, so if competition is used as your basic motivation to do anything, it will literally conspire against you and defeat you every time...Although it may appear that the world is a competitive place, it is only competitive to those who feel the need to compete. Most people will reject this idea because of their childhood training, when competition was rated right up there with apple pie and the American flag. If you ask them if they think competition is healthy, they will reply, with great enthusiasm, that it is not only healthy but necessary! They feel that it gives life meaning, purpose and direction; that a person needs a reward for doing a 'good job'. IT NEVER OCCURS TO THEM THAT THE REWARD IS IN THE DOING AND NOT IN THE END RESULT...The self-reliant individual, on the other hand, does not feel the need to compete. He does not need to look and see what others are doing or be 'better than' the next person. Recognizing his capabilities for what they are, he strives FOR EXCELLENCE IN HIS OWN LIFE. The only competition is with himself, to acheive greater  personal growth."

These are notions that I agree with, but I do wonder how one can escape the practical reality of 'competition'in a world that veritably requires us to endorse this approach to existence. Having lived in Canada, Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines, I've been fortunate enough to witness all kinds of 'competition' -- each form culturally encoded, specific to the land. Much of this 'competing' concerns itself with life-stages, for lack of a better term -- where you are at this particular point in your journey, as it pertains to marriage, houses, cars and careers. It varies for each country; in Japan, if you're not married by thirty, and you're a woman, you're 'stale bread', but in Canada noone would truly care all that much if you were single forever. (Your family might, sure, but society? Eh.) If you don't have a house by your mid-thirties, as a Canadian, you're considered kind of hard-up; in the Philippines, many peoiple are trying to leave the country altogether at that age, or are living with families, because c'mon -- who can afford a place of their own? People are keeping up with the Joneses all over, but it's a race that is orchestrated and enacted via cultural means of assent. 'This' is what you should be doing, now; 'that' is what's appropriate, later. To opt out of those pre-existing conditions, as American health-insurance companies would put it, is a source of not only quiet exclusion, but constant alienation. You are welcome in this society if you play by its rules.

And this notion of 'competition' as the means to a good life is fostered by all our little screens. The massive popularity of sports celebrates 'winners' and 'losters'; the Academy Awards implies that art is composed of those who defeat other pracitioners. Academic scholarships (clickable and readable on all university websites) reward those students who are demonstrably 'better' and 'smarter' than their peers. If you don't keep up, prove yourself, dominate others, you are inert. Modern electronic culture smoothly taps into this primitive need in ourselves to foot-stomp everyone else, psychically pile-drive them into submission, Superfly Jimmy Snuka

I suppose it was always like this, even way back when in those pre-picture days. The farmer from a few centuries ago glaces over the top of his crops to his neighbour's garden -- comparing and judging, affirming or bemoaning his own state of growth. Yet everything's intensified now, in ways epic and silly. Tweeters view for the most number of 'followers', or FACEBOOK practioners gauge the number of 'friends' or 'likes' to a post as a confidence-boost to their overall sense of themselves. How many people will share your Instagram pic? Further levels of competition through which we can raise our own egos via the diminishment of others.

While outside, even as I write these words, the blue afternoon sky is lazily shading its way into an ashy form of dusk, and roosters are squawking, and children heading home from their classes are laughing all the way, the whole natural mess a medley of colours and sounds that would fit right into the frame of a world five hundred years in the past, a state of existence that needs no other occupation.


Monday, March 16, 2015


I'm by no means a John Grisham completist or anything, but on the occasion of getting ready to dip into SYCAMORE ROW, the sequel to his very first novel, A TIME TO KILL, I started thinking about what he's doing as a novelist that is somewhat novel.

By no means a great literary stylist, nor a master of charactertization or mood, Grisham has nevertheless managed to keep his career chugging, probably because he wields something in his arsenal that many other writers sorely lack -- namely, a kind of real-world occupational experience that provides endless bounty for his legal-thriller plots, as well as insights into American jurisprudence that can serve to illustrate in fictional form how his country has lost its way.

He's no means the only legal-thriller author out there, and probably not the best; that title still belongs to Scott Turow, I'd reckon, although Turow has always favoured and emphasized characterization more than his legalistic brethren, squarely occupying that strange no-man's land between 'popular fiction' and 'literature'. (And, as much as I like Turow, I did feel that INNOCENT, his sequel to PRESUMED INNOCENT, was pretty much a bust, if only because its premise was so unlikely and contrived, even for the legal genre: "He's on trial AGAIN for murder?!?") Turow seems to allow his themes to emerge from his characters' turmoils, whereas Grisham lets the story tug everybody along. That only works if you have a pretty good plot to hang your hat on, and Grisham usually piques our interest by the specific legal milieu he explores in each book.

 Grisham was a small-town laywer before he became a writer, and, either intentionally or inadvertently, over the past two decades he has slowly, novel by novel, crafted an extended expose on the ridiculously convoluted nature of the American legal system -- and, by extension, of America itself.

Just look at some of the titles of his books, and tell me if he is or is not, in some small way, illustrating the means by which American justice is disseminated and distorted, and also let's not forget that, collectively, the names of these books could serve as the Table of Contents for a first-year textbook in law: THE FIRM, THE CLIENT, THE CHAMBER, THE RAINMAKER, THE RUNAWAY JURY, THE PARTNER, THE STREET LAWYER, THE TESTAMENT, THE SUMMONS, THE KING OF TORTS, THE LAST JUROR, THE BROKER, THE APPEAL, THE ASSOCIATE, THE CONFESSION, THE LITIGATORS, THE RACKETEER.

What we have here are books that, as a group, seem to examine almost every conceivable aspect of the American legal experience. What's the benefit of that? I'm thinking of something that both Norman Mailer and Doris Lessing have hinted at -- namely, that the majority of fiction writers, substantial fiction writers, have very little experience of professional life. Where are the great doctors, airline pilots, stockbrokers who are also excellent novelists? There aren't any, essentially. The skills it takes to become a writer are usually honed in the time that other folks use to ascend up the ladder of their professions. As a result, we get fantastic novelists who work wonders with prose, bu they often lack something, for a lack of a better word, authentic. Not emotionally, but practically, real-world. An insight into various professions, perhaps; a knowledge of nuts-and-bolts societal constructions, maybe. There's often a textured, I've-been-there occupational reality absent, either blue-collar or upper-class, that limits not only the settings of novels, but also their content and intent.

Grisham knows the law, and that laundry-list of titles up above embodies how he's delved into almost eveyr nook and cranny of its hidden corners and constructs. Even in his melodramatically suspenseful page-turners, he's letting us in on notions of the law that would otherwise remain hidden. This doesn't make his books great literature; it can, however, make for a pretty good story, given that we're allowed access to systems of thought that non-legal minds couldn't normally pry.

(From time to time, he steps out of the legal world, writing sports novels (BLEACHERS, CALICO JOE, PLAYING FOR PIZZA), young adult novels, an involving non-fiction work, THE INNOCENT MAN, and even holiday novels; his book SKIPPING CHRISTMAS has the dubious distinction of being turned into a Tim Allen comedy. He has a book of short short stories (unread by me) called FORD COUNTRY that focuses on small-town life. And probably his best book started as a serial that he published in THE OXFORD AMERICAN, a Southern literary magazine that he purchased when it started to go under. A PAINTED HOUSE is a moving coming-of-age tale that has a little bit of a TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD vibe, and I'm quite certain that it'll be the best thing that Grisham will ever write. It has heart, and charm, and feels like it's the kind of story he wrote just to prove that he could.)

The first half of his novels tend to satisfy more than the rest; often the tales kind of peter out by the end, as if he's rushing to beat a deadline that's a-coming. The characterization and plots vary, in terms of freshness and vibe. Sometimes you can feel the padding. Yet there are other times when I'll pick up one of his books almost condescendingly, telling myself that I'll only read a few pages until something better comes along, and before you know it I'm halfway through the damn thing. I realize: He's telling me about a world  that I could never enter on my own. That particular dexterity and knowledge won't necessarily elevate his tales to the highest order of art, but it definitely helps in making a story feel full.