Monday, 5 May 2014
Thoughts on Yoda and The Great Sin
On G+ the world and his wife are talking about "Star Wars Day", which is apparently a thing that people do. Don't worry if you can't guess why it's May the 4th. It took ages for me to work it out too.
So I thought I'd write about Star Wars. Specifically, Yoda. I hate the prequels to Star Wars in the sort of mild way that I hate, say, rice pudding; if faced with the prospect of watching one I will probably pull a 'yuck' face, but I don't froth at the mouth the way some Star Wars fans do. I honestly think that the prequels, for me, were like Star Wars antibodies. Once they'd been introduced to my system I became able to see the entire franchise for what it really is: two really good films, an enjoyable kids film, and three shit ones. Hitherto I was a huge fan; afterwards I maintain a cordial relationship. It's like an amicable divorce. In the same way that you might not mind the thought of getting back into bed with your ex wife or husband but it would come wrapped up in too much bullshit to be worth it, I wouldn't mind being a fan again except for the fact that it would mean accepting notions like General Grievous and Count Dooku are good names for baddies or somebody thought that "I don't like sand. It's coarse and irritating and it gets everywhere. Everything here is soft and smooth," is something that an actual human being would use as a chat-up line, let alone one that would work.
But in some way I do still have a bit of bile and vitriol left for George Lucas when it comes to Yoda. Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back was such a great character. I say it unashamedly: the scenes with Yoda in that film are some of my favourite scenes in cinema. The combination of Irvin Kershner's unfussy, calm directing, Mark Hamill's understated acting, John Williams' gorgeous score, and Frank Oz's puppetry is more or less perfect. It's easy to be sniffy about the pseudo-Buddhist nonsense that Yoda is spouting, but the character and his situation have so much charm that you just don't care.
In the prequels, George Lucas takes Empire's good-natured, humble, peace-loving, grammatically-confused SF version of Kermit the Frog and transforms him into a vicious, mean-spirited, aggressive little prick with a god complex. Worse than that, though, he commits what I often think of as The Great Sin of genre fiction: giving the audience what they want.
In Empire the presentation of Yoda's power is perfectly judged. When you watch it for the first time, you are first shown a slightly annoying, but amusing, clown character, who then transforms into a wise old teacher. You gradually get the sense that this little fellow is more than he seems, but you still aren't quite sure about him - until the moment when he shows Luke what using the force is really all about by moving the X-Wing. In common with everything else in the film, it's executed brilliantly: from the way the score builds and swells, to Mark Hamill's reaction, to Yoda's killer closing line. But, for a moment of great grandeur and climax, it's also nicely understated. All Yoda has done is move a starship. He hasn't killed anyone, blown anything up, or done anything fancy-dan. He's helped out his young student and given him a valuable lesson. That's all.
Watching that scene, of course, the audience is given the awareness that, wow, Yoda must be an immensely powerful badass. But it's done so well that you don't need to be shown anything more. The message comes across perfectly. Yoda must be a mighty warrior. And Kershner has the taste, the class, to leave it at that. Let the audience imagine what they want. He's given a hint, knowing - crucially - that the power of suggestion will be more powerful than anything he could actually have put on the screen. The audience wants more, but Kershner knows that actually their imaginations will be more satisfactory than anything he can deliver.
But of course, Star Wars fans being what they are, they want to see more: they want to see what Yoda can do. And in Attack of the Clones (easily the worst of the prequels), George Lucas gives every 25-year-old Star Wars fan what they'd only previous dared to imagine: Yoda having a fight with lightsabers. In an act of sheer, barefaced fan service, we see the full shebang - Yoda getting out his lightsaber, shooting lightning bolts, and throwing boulders around. And it's fun...for a second. Until you realise that there is something awfully tawdry about the whole affair. Yoda was a calm, wise, peaceful little puppet in Empire, and he had a certain message - that you should try to transcend violence. That aggression and anger lead you down the path of ruin. Yet here he is, throwing his weight around in the most unseemly fashion. The fight with Count Dooku is like the moment you get a blowie off the hitherto untouchable school good girl: it's nice and everything, but at the same time you can't help but feel as if something important has been sadly diminished. Something that was pure in your mind has become forever sullied.
In giving the audience a view of Yoda's full power, the magic of what had hitherto only been hinted at and imagined completely dissipates. He falls from being a great and powerful being of myth into a silly little dancing green ninja with a shiny sword. And we all lose something as a result.