Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In my piece on John Williams’ score for The Last Jedi, I noted that the new Star Wars films do not extend from the six George Lucas films that precede them as much as they offer responses to them. In this new phase, Star Wars series has been consumed by solipsism. Star Wars is now first and foremost about itself, deviating from established patterns only to reinforce them in the end. Nowhere is that clearer than in the final image of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, an affirmation of Star Wars‘ position as a fixture of childhood inspiration.

This new trilogy explicitly presents itself as a bridge between Lucas’ films and a new, Lucas-less Star Wars, resolving the narratives of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo while simultaneously establishing a new set of heroes. The tug-of-war between these competing responsibilities results in structural oddities and dramatic compromises in both of 2015’s The Force Awakens and now The Last Jedi.

In presenting the old heroes as damaged by familial and political cataclysm, this new Star Wars trilogy adopts something of an Old Testament approach to mythic narrative, in which history unfolds as a complex cycle of collapse and renewal. This conceit, while fundamentally sound, has largely been used to reinstate the narrative patterns and dynamics of the original Star Wars trilogy. So, unfortunately, we once again are presented with the Galactic Empire, now reborn as the First Order, facing off against a new Rebellion, here called the Resistance.

If the broad strokes of this new Star Wars universe remain woefully unimaginative, at least these films offer glimmers of the grand melodrama that made the original films a phenomenon. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, all returning to their iconic roles, bestow on these films a level of weight they do not otherwise earn: they carry the weight of years in their faces, in their voices, in their gestures.

Hamill’s Luke dominates The Last Jedi to the point of nearly overshadowing everything else in the film (Luke’s sibling, Leia, has plenty of screentime but is somewhat less central to its narrative; Fisher’s Leia was to be the focal point of 2019’s Episode IX, but Fisher’s untimely passing makes this her last film appearance). When Luke first appears here, he’s haggard, weary, and bitter. He has isolated himself in a hidden corner of the galaxy, waiting for death. Skywalker maps his personal failures onto the entire Jedi religion, having come to the conclusion that the universe might be better off without the meddling of Jedi. This arc sets the stage for this trilogy’s boldest, but underdeveloped, suggestion: the notion that the Jedi order needs to emerge in a new form in order to survive. Alas, The Last Jedi concludes with the suggestion that that new form will closely resemble the old form (though we will have to wait for 2019’s Episode IX to find out for sure).

Thankfully, there is a pleasing level of invention present in The Last Jedi‘s variation on familiar Star Wars themes. This overstuffed, untidy epic has been born from filmmaker Rian Johnson’s passion for cinema. Johnson extends the film genre collage that Lucas built into the Star Wars universe, which has always mingled sword-and-sorcery tales with war pictures, samurai movies, and Westerns. The dynamic opening segues from Spaceballs-style comedy antics to a tense space battle that mingles futuristic tech with the aesthetics and function of vintage aircraft. An excursion to a casino planet allows Johnson to inject a dose of 1930s/1940s Hollywood glamor into the Star Wars universe. The film’s climactic confrontation is staged as a sword battle between samurai warriors, unfolding on a vast plain where every footstep exposes the blood-red soil beneath snow-white salt.

With the characters of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren and Daisey Ridley’s Rey, our icons of good and evil, Johnson adds new textures to Star Wars drama. Tied together by the fabric of the Force itself, they learn that they are different halves of a cosmic equation, both attracted to and repelled by the other. Their individual isolation from the world around them coupled with the intimate psychic connection that they share awakens youthful desire, complicating their shared trajectory.

Their relationship paves an intriguing path for the future, but their arc here also oddly climaxes in the film’s midsection, at which point their relationship takes the back seat as other members of the ensemble rise to prominence. This speaks to the broader shapelessness of the picture: there are so many characters and so much narrative incident that rarely combine in productive ways. To be fair to Johnson, The Force Awakens never truly established its new characters as a group with a clear dynamic and a shared destiny. Many of the new characters were merely sketches that Johnson needed to define while constructing a narrative trajectory. Aside from the material given to Rey and Ren, much of that work feels schematic. Johnson attempts to unite the film’s disparate stories through theme, but they never become united in dramatic momentum. John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe, and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose may be appealing presences, but their arcs lurch awkwardly from plot point to plot point. 

Ultimately, The Last Jedi serves better as a goodbye to beloved old characters than as a stepping stone to new adventures. Its most moving moment allows Hamill and Fisher an on-screen reunion that is also a farewell. Such magic cannot be manufactured, it can only be channeled. The magic lies in these icons themselves, in the eyes of two people who are more than people. They are vessels of cultural memory.

The Music of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I am not particularly invested in the future of Disney’s Star Wars franchise beyond witnessing John Williams complete his work on this new trilogy. For me, Star Wars will always remain George Lucas’ mad vision, a collection of impulses that were, for both better and worse, unique and personal. These new Star Wars films are less extensions of that same vision than they are responses to it, and, as such, they have different footing.

The clearest throughline for Star Wars in all of its phases is the work of the venerable John Williams, whose contributions to the aesthetic landscape of the series remain so significant that he can justifiably be recognized as a kind of co-creator with Lucas. Williams’ work on the series may be his magnum opus; certainly, his work on Star Wars–three separate trilogies that span the length of Williams’ extensive career, each distinct in character, but nevertheless tied together through thematic overlap–has no real equivalent in the world of film music. Few ongoing series have developed such longstanding relationships with composers, and even fewer have had such clear structures in which composers are free to develop their work. It would be so disheartening for this impressive project to be completed by a Williams imitator, rather than the great artist himself.

Williams’ musical landscapes for these trilogies mirror each trilogy’s emotional and aesthetic shifts. The original trilogy was a swashbuckling fairy tale loaded with rollicking adventure that occasionally gestured toward myth and magic. Williams took up the legacy of Korngold (the series’ most significant musical touchstone, and a reference point for Lucas when discussing the outline of the score with Williams) and wove three films of robust, romantic themes and bold marches. Williams, and the films themselves, never went full-on mythic until the conclusion of Revenge of the Jedi, as a chorus of male vocals backs the battle between father and son. In this moment, we see glimmers of the musical vocabulary that Williams would pursue in the prequel trilogy.

The prequel trilogy was a chronicle of a civilization’s political and religious fall, which Williams infused with all of the musical grandeur befitting an epic. The themes tend to be more stately than that of the original trilogy, even as they share essential DNA. Compare the prequel trilogy’s love theme, “Across the Stars,” which paints doomed romance with a courtly air, to the original  trilogy’s sweeping love theme, “Han and the Princess,” which, in its full statement, fully gives itself over to breathless passion. Williams’ themes for the major duels of the prequel films, “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes,” take the operatic essence of Return of the Jedi‘s climactic battle to new heights, weaving that impulse into the prequels’ musical statements of lament (“Qui-Gon’s Funeral” and “The Immolation Scene”).

Disney’s new trilogy has framed itself explicitly as a saga of transition, in which new, inexperienced characters tentatively navigating the complicated legacies of battle-scarred heroes. Williams plays into the mixture of youthful innocence and mature grief. The mythic impulse appears in flickers, not full statements: amidst a more amorphous present, we are given glimpses of the heroic past and gestures toward a hopeful future.

Williams’ score for The Force Awakens belonged first and foremost to the character of Rey. Her theme became the score’s backbone, recurring throughout the score in different statements until the grand musical climax of the “Jedi Steps” and its segue into a full, declarative presentation during the end credits suite. “Rey’s Theme” intermingles with the “Force Theme,” which, given its strong identification with Luke Skywalker, signals their intertwined destinies. In the final minute of his score, Williams signaled what the film itself so often strained to gesture toward: the new possibilities that can be found in the synthesis between past and future.

The other themes established in The Force Awakens were more hesitant and muted, reflecting fledgling characters and movements that had not yet come into their own. The most intriguing of those supporting themes belongs to Kylo Ren, who is, in some ways, this trilogy’s secondary protagonist. Ren’s theme is not really a proper theme at all, but collection of distinct motifs that signal his inner emotional turmoil and shifting sense of identity.

The Last Jedi seamlessly continues the journey of Awakens‘ score, this time more directly highlighting the collision between Star Wars generations. Indeed, there are so many distinct themes at play in The Last Jedi score that it borders on becoming overcrowded, but Williams maintains clarity throughout. The end credits suite for The Last Jedi follows a new template for the series, eschewing Williams’ typical tendency to present “concert suite” arrangements of the film’s themes for an intricate and dense collage of fragmented motifs. Themes emerge, disappear, and then re-emerge.

One brief restatement registers with more clarity than the others. In a loving tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, Williams presents “Leia’s Theme” with new orchestrations. The familiar notes ring out in a sublimely tender piano arrangement, lightly backed by strings. A flute joins the piano, and then the theme fades away, gone too soon.

“Rey’s Theme” once again serves as the throughline, bringing the suite to a close in a way that recalls the tender resolution of the score for The Force Awakens. Here, the final phrases are tentative, presented not as conclusion, but as a pause before the final act.

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye

You can easily lose yourself in the labyrinthine corridors that lie just beneath the facade of the American dream. Philip Marlowe, private investigator, has been there and back. He’ll guide you through the maze, if you’ll let him. All you have to pay is the price of a paperback novel.

But what if the the labyrinth changed? What if familiar landmarks Marlowe recognized had worn away by the ravages of history? What if the old tunnels collapsed in on themselves, while new passageways appeared amidst the rubble? In such a strange landscape, maybe even the great Philip Marlowe could lose his way. This is the scenario of Robert Altman’s 1973 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

In the Raymond Chandler novels, Philip Marlowe serves as a counterpoint to a withering world dominated by the hunger for money, power, and sex. He’s a clear-eyed lone wolf with an incomparable wit. He’s perpetually indifferent to money, has nothing but distaste for power, and will take sex when offered but will not be mastered by it. Despite the world’s violence and corruption, Marlowe remains genuinely sentimental, an idealist-turned-cynic. In choosing a life of near-poverty, he has also chosen to be insignificant. As a lowly bum investigator, he has more power than the police detectives he encounters in his journeys. He doesn’t have to play politics, he doesn’t have to make peace with the system. He can choose his own road.

But being your own man doesn’t buy you happiness. Marlowe ends nearly all of his tales melancholy and alone. The Marlowe stories are an ongoing chronicle of tragic desire. The cases Marlowe solves reveal the sad and petty motivations behind the desperate actions of troubled people–even the most savage people have their passions. In this regard, Chandler’s novels never spill over from cynicism to actual misanthropy.

Of Marlowe’s many misadventures, The Long Goodbye stands tall as Chandler’s masterpiece. Of course, Chandler’s Marlowe stories are so united in voice, tone, and theme that they are very much of a piece, and therefore any stated preferences regarding Chandler’s work likely says more about the individual reader than the works themselves. But while The Long Goodbye does not spin the most exciting or impressively constructed yarn of Chandler’s career, this intimate portrait of relational decay nevertheless marks the apex of the existential melancholy that anchors all of Marlowe’s odysseys.

The focus of The Long Goodbye—despite detours with the police and the elite rich and a gangster or two—is failed romance, the subject of the novel’s two major intersecting plot threads. Story A deals with Philip Marlowe’s interaction with rich playboy Terry Lennox, a friend of Marlowe’s who escapes to Mexico (with Marlowe’s help) after the murder of his wife, Sylvia Lennox, for which he is a prime suspect. Once in Mexico, Lennox commits suicide. Story B involves Philip Marlowe’s interaction with bestselling writer Roger Wade, whose brutal alcoholism threatens to get in the way of his next bestseller. At the behest of Roger Wade’s editor, he agrees to help keep Wade functional, stepping into the midst of Roger Wade’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, Eileen. Marlowe’s motivation is therefore twofold: Marlowe seeks to defend the reputation of Terry Lennox by proving Lennox’s innocence (despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary), and to find what dark secret has driven Roger Wade mad.

Lennox, the story reveals, did not kill his wife, and has faked his suicide in order to start a new life. Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, he prefers reinvention to confrontation. Roger Wade is a sadder case. He was having an affair with Sylvia Lennox prior to her murder, and in his most drunken moments, he believes he may have murdered her. Moving from lucidity to near-madness, Wade disintegrates until he is murdered by his wife Eileen, who, it turns out, was also responsible for the murder of Sylvia. Eileen, the third piece of the triangle, is more elusive than the other two major figures, a beautiful phantom whose motives only come into focus at the very end, when it is revealed that she was romantically betrayed by both Terry Lennox and Roger Wade.

Throughout all his interactions with these pathetic people, Marlowe keeps to his unwavering belief that Lennox was innocent, partly because he’s got a “reasonable amount of sentiment invested in him,” and partly because he has a gut-level feeling that Lennox could never commit the savage act of murder that resulted in Sylvia’s death. The novel rewards Marlowe’s belief: Lennox is innocent. But it’s far from a full vindication. Lennox is not, the novel reveals, simply a fool with a heart of gold. He’s also a runaway that has left a string of collateral damage. When Marlowe writes at the end of the novel that “he never saw any of them again,” there’s a sense of relief beneath the words.

This undercurrent of disillusionment made The Long Goodbye a good fit for the despairing American cinema of the 1970s. While Altman’s The Long Goodbye may be the best (or at least, the most interesting) riff on Chandler to emerge in the 70s, it was scarcely alone. Following in the years thereafter was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (not a Chandler adaptation, but certainly fashioned after the Marlowe stories in shape, form, and tone, with an emphasis on political conspiracy that suited the era of Watergate), Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (which added an air of Nathanael West to the classic Marlowe mystery, depicting a ghostly world of decaying Hollywood glamor), and then, the worst of them all, Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep (which strangely changed the setting from Los Angeles to London, but nevertheless got some mileage out of Chandler’s dark undercurrents).

Robert Altman’s film adaptation remains, in its broadest strokes, faithful to Chandler’s text: it, too, features a Philip Marlowe who helps rich guy Terry Lennox escape after the murder of his wife, only to then get wrapped up in the domestic drama between Roger and Eileen Wade. But Leigh Brackett’s script dramatically rewrites the finale, giving it an even more cynical reveal: Marlowe was a patsy all along. Lennox did kill his wife, and, on top of it, was having an affair with Eileen Wade, which subsequently drove Roger to suicide. Lennox used and abandoned Marlowe without a second thought. This change simplifies and radically alters the thrust of Chandler’s text, subverting Marlowe as a hero. Marlowe’s violent response to these revelations reconfigures the character of Marlowe for the decade of Dirty Harry.

Altman’s The Long Goodbye opens and closes with renditions of “Hooray for Hollywood,” which self-consciously situates the film in the cinematic tradition of hardboiled detective stories (the most famous Chandler adaptation remains Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep). But Altman has little interest in recreating the period of studio Hollywood: the world of Altman’s The Long Goodbye is the Los Angeles of the early seventies, lost in the haze of pot smoke.

Altman’s cinema commits to a kind of naturalism and realism, insofar as it pursues grounded production design and naturalistic performances. But it revels in strange, found moments, and purposefully obscures or omits key narrative details. In Altman’s films, narrative breaks down and collapses (for examples, look no further than Short Cuts, where life seems little more than a string of strange coincidences and unmotivated changes, or at 3 Women, where identity is fluid and motivation is stubbornly unclear). For Altman, life is too random and overwhelming to be tidy or explicable. The Long Goodbye does not tip over into the narrative beffudlement that characterizes Altman at his extremes, but it nevertheless thrives on a sense of disorientation and dislocation.

The bravura opening introduces Philip Marlowe (played by Elliot Gould) waking up in a dreary apartment, stirred by the cries of his cat. What follows is Marlowe’s comic midnight odyssey to get cat food, intercut with footage of Terry Lennox driving to Marlowe’s place after the murder of his wife. What makes this modest sequence memorable, aside from Vilmos Zsigmond’s diffuse cinematography, is the brilliant soundtrack. The entire film is haunted by a single song played in endless variations, an imitation jazz standard entitled “The Long Goodbye” (written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer). This tune reappears again and again in endless variations, from muzak in the food store to a doorbell chime to a Mexican funeral march. Altman and editor Lou Lombardo construct this opening sequence in such a way that each of the various versions segues into the other as the location changes: the version on Marlowe’s radio segues into the version playing in the food store. It’s as if this has all happened before and will all happen again, with the lyrics almost goading Marlowe’s investigation onward, continually posing the question “Can you recognize the theme?”

Of course, Gould’s Marlowe doesn’t recognize the theme. He can’t square the truth with his convictions. As the ending of the film makes clear, he’s a sentimental leftover from an earlier era. If Chandler’s Marlowe was an insider, a verifiable expert on the tragedies of human life who nevertheless clung to the virtues of decency, then Altman’s Marlowe is a lost man. His masculine appeal has dried up (a grocery store clerk mocks him for having a cat instead of a girl), his wisecracks seem more desperate and goofy than cool, and he turns out to be a terrible judge of character. He reacts to the pot-saturated world around him with amusement and befuddlement. He doesn’t even know how to handle the Wades’ guard dog.

Accordingly, The Long Goodbye avoids any of the immediacy and urgency that typically defines the detective story. It’s willfully, delightfully breezy, a vision of a sun-baked Los Angeles lost in the throes of drug and alcohol dependency. To the extent that the story comes together, it comes together in impressionistic bursts: an interaction with a greedy gangster or a brief argument between Roger and Eileen Wade. When the reveals finally stack up, it’s clear that the only reason that there has been any mystery at all is because Marlowe failed to see the obvious and ugly truth: his friend was a murderer and a traitor.

Society, too, has turned ugly. The police are cynical and flout the details of the law to get their way, doctors are predatory monsters seeking to profit from rather than help their troubled patients, and hoodlums are out to shake down anyone they can for their money (in a deviation from Chandler, we don’t meet the elite upper class; in the 1970s, the rich family dynasties no longer had the presence that they once did). The youth are rendered completely powerless and indifferent by their constant consumption of pot, more interested in yoga than in anything going on around them. Everyone stumbles from one moment to the next, and in the midst of that confusion, there can be great brutality.

The film’s most savage moment occurs when a hoodlum shaking down Marlowe for cash—cash owed by Terry Lennox—demonstrates the depths of his depravity by smashing a coke bottle into the face of his mistress. The hoodlum claims to love her, and suggests that if he’ll do this to someone he loves, Marlowe can imagine what he’d do to someone he doesn’t even like. Love doesn’t mean much in The Long Goodbye, and the Coke bottle–an icon of commercialization, bearing promises of “the real thing”–becomes a tool of vicious, shocking violence.

One man in The Long Goodbye knows and recognizes the truth about America, but it isn’t Gould’s Marlowe. The Long Goodbye actually belongs to Sterling Hayden’s Roger Wade. Of all the characters in the film, Roger Wade seems to be the one most directly lifted from the Chandler original. His enormous voice, his drunken rants, his existential despair: all of this goes straight back to Chandler. But with all the supporting characters withered or minimized (including his wife, Eileen, who was the master schemer in Chandler’s original, but becomes a more timid, fragile accessory to a crime in Altman’s film), he stands that much taller, more a force of nature than a mere man. Sterling Hayden’s ferocious performance ensures that he dominates the frame in every scene he appears, particularly when he’s dealing with the comparatively feeble Marlowe.

One of the film’s most memorable images depicts the gulf between them: a lonely Marlowe standing on the Wades’ beach, looking out on the incomprehensible ocean. But the drifting camera adds another layer: this is simply a reflected image in the glass doors of the Wades’ home. Behind the glass, the Wades argue. As seems to perpetually be the case in Altman’s film, Marlowe misses the significant moments, but Wade remains in the middle of it all, a miserable participant. He’s the insider, not Marlowe, acutely recognizing and feeling the pain of betrayal.

In the film’s bleakest moment, Wade commits suicide (another deviation from Chandler’s original, in which Eileen murders him). Wade throws himself out to that same overwhelming sea, and despite Eileen and Marlowe’s attempts to save him, he is swept out into the darkness. All that remains is his cane, which the ocean deposits back onto the shore. Marlowe cannot comprehend Wade’s motivations, and only moments later, Marlowe foolishly pleads with the police to reopen the Lennox case, believing he’s cracked it. They quickly shut him down.

Marlowe returns to the Wades’ home to find that Eileen has moved. His requests for her address are denied. He later sees her driving down the street with a strange, serene smile on her face, an inappropriate look for a distressed widow. He chases after her, but is hit by a car. Again, he’s left in the dust by those who know the real story. To the extent that he survives The Long Goodbye, he does so by blind luck. When nearly killed by the money-hungry hoodlum, he’s saved by chance: the money is returned to the hoodlum by another source at the very moment when he is about to be killed.

In the world of Chandler’s America, scarred by two world wars, a hero could at least have a hint of sentimentality and survive. America might be decaying, but its ghost was still there. In Altman’s America, the America of Vietnam and Watergate, sentimentality makes you a fool.

How can a hero survive in such a world? Marlowe eventually does realize that Terry Lennox’s suicide was faked and that he’s alive and well. What Marlowe does in response to this discovery is his first bold, decisive act of the film: the cold-blooded murder of Terry Lennox. It would have been an unthinkable action for Chandler’s Marlowe, but Altman’s Marlowe has tired of being a patsy, a victim of predatory people. The only way to make sense of a brutal world might be an act of violence, whether against others or, as in the case of Roger Wade, against the self.

Having passed through the world of the 70s and re-emerged as a vigilante killer, Marlowe is celebratory, playing on a harmonic after his revenge-murder of Terry Lennox. He pays Eileen Wade no mind as she drives by and “Hooray for Hollywood” takes over the soundtrack. Marlowe walks down the road, having conquered the modern America. Perhaps he’ll return to the past; he’s more at home there.