Important Stuff

Let's debate

The (Semi-)Definitive Post

A few very important points about telling a story:

1) Decide where the story starts and ends. It starts when you set up a problem, and ends when you resolve it. Anything else will leave your audience disappointed.

2) Know what to leave out. Leave in the exciting stuff, the important dialogue, the things that the audience must know in order to understand the story.

3) Have a fully-dimensional world/universe.

4) Stay consistent.

He did a great job (apparently with help) on these issues in Episodes IV-VI. Sort of. Star Wars: A New Hope was nearly perfect in and of itself, in that the story started with "The Princess is in Peril", and ended when the threat to her was defeated. And the whole trilogy did a fairly good job, in that the problem established at the beginning of the trilogy was that the Emperor had dissolved the Senate and begun ruling directly and ruthlessly, and the trilogy ended when the Emperor was killed.

But the problems started in The Empire Strikes Back, don't they? Suddenly, we have new issues introduced that weren't in the first live jasmin episode: redemption from evil. It's rather grafted in. And the evil in Star Wars is in the senior military leadership and Darth Vader. I remember feeling a little miffed that Vader kowtowed so much to an Emperor who really didn't do much at all. If the Emperor was such a powerful and complete evil, why wasn't he in on any of the decisions made by the principals in the first two movies? As in, executing generals for failure, destroying Alderaan, etc? Again, the Emperor as a player seemed grafted into the story, to the stories detriment. Especially because the story ends when the Emperor is killed, right? His death alone doesn't settle the destructive capability of the Empire, right? They still have generals and governers and tax collecters throughout the galaxy, so all that happened is the top guy was killed. That leaves a power vacuum that any individual could step in and replace without skipping a beat. Sure, the logical #2 guy, Vader, had also been removed...but here's the first real problem with the series: the most interesting part of Return of the Jedi should be how the Empire was fully defeated and replaced. Maybe that could be handled in Episodes VII-IX, perhaps, but still: if the death alone of the Empire's leadership resolved the problem, then the Emperor should have been involved in the storyline from the very beginning, as the person obviously making decisions to put the Princess (and freedom) in peril.

Now, Mr. Lucas did a pretty good job on the other parts in the original trilogy. He particularly did a good job on "leaving out the stuff that should be left out" in the first movie: that movie is incredibly packed with action and information. I can't think of a single thing that could be left out without altering the storyline or obscuring character. Even the moment that Chewbacca scares the little droid as he's being escorted to the detention center helps establish his character more fully, off-setting the hindrance that he can't speak. Every character gets attention and opportunities to reveal themselves. This is absolutely important.

The back-story is also wonderful: Clone wars, a Jedi order wiped out, a father betrayed and killed, destiny, obscure powers, a Senate dissolved, a rebel Alliance fighting for freedom...awesome stuff.

Consistency is pretty good, for the most part. It starts going bad in Episode VI, however, when the revelation of Luke and Leia's relationship makes several earlier romantic moments become stomach-turning events, in retrospect (as has been oft-noted).

But all these things go wrong when Lucas goes back and tries to do the prequel trilogy.

First, it becomes painfully obvious that although Lucas claims to have all 9 stories fully written from the beginning, it's only a very broad, general, and indistinct outline. I know I've felt that I had a story completely planned out and written in my mind, but when I actually start writing, I end up writing myself into a corner. Lucas doesn't seem to let that stop him, to our chagrin and misfortune.

Know where your story starts and stops: With the prequels, Lucas does a fairly good job of starting and stopping. He's fully embraced the story arc of Anakin's/Vader's fall into the dark side, and he sticks with it.

Know What to Leave Out: But he totally screws up the "what to leave out part". The movies aren't short, but they don't really have that much happen, to tell the truth. Compared to the "every moment necessary" jam-packed excitement of Episode IV, the prequels don't even come close. The Clone Wars could have, and should have been the highlight of the prequels. The name certainly inspires something more imaginative than someone using a clone army, doesn't it? War is interesting, because victory and defeat doesn't necessarily go to the "good guys", and Lucas could have set up some interesting battles and campaigns in which we actually cared about the result, in which the result and aftermath could have been uncertain, thus raising tension. We knew the Jedi would get destroyed in the process of the decline of the each battle could have been set up that way: we want the good guys to win, but would this battle be their initial defeat? Or the ultimate? Since we know the Republic is going to decline (but not actually fall until just before the start of Episode IV, right? More in the consistency section), but not when the decline is going to happen, Lucas could have played that tension into an awe-inspiring trilogy. And why did he decide to elide over the destruction of the Jedis in a handful of vignettes? Heck, after the 2nd one, the rest were absolutely useless in adding any information, and so should have been left out. The love scenes between Anakin and Amidala were useless (and horribly unmoving, as has been pointed out). It would have been much better to show 2-4 scenes of Anakin sacrificing something for Amidala and vice versa. Show the love, not tell it in a sappy and useless 'romantic' scene, or "I love you" dialoges. The Jedi Council discussions were boring and added little to the story, as well. To tell the truth, it's impossible to really point out all the mistakes in this category, because the prequel trilogies are simply badly-written, so nearly everything should have been left out. Let me simply say that the most interesting parts of the prequel should have been the Clone Wars, the destruction of the Jedi, the decline of a once-noble Republic, and the fall of Vader, in that order. Lucas reverses that order, again, to our viewing misfortune. I would have made the first movie an action-packed adventure focusing on the clone wars and Anakin as a young man with top-notch piloting skills and how that resulted in his invitation to be trained as a Jedi (starting his training as a young man being the fatal flaw that results in his flaw, reinforcing why training Luke as a young man seems so risky). Then the 2nd movie could have been all about Anakin's problems in training, with several Jedi missions nearly failing because of his weaknesses, and maybe the first few Jedi being killed (leaving a dark ending appropriate for the end of a 2nd Act, just like The Empire Strikes Back). Then the 3rd movie would have dealt with the process of Anakin becoming Vader...maybe out of his frustration from failing to grasp what it is to be Jedi? ...or by seeing the Jedi losing and wanting to be on the winning side? I guess I can see it was a gutsy play by Lucas to have Anakin's fall be out of a distorted love (and that's a good and important lesson), but it is at odds with the other messages of the trilogy, so I think it should have been handled differently.

Fully Dimensional Universe/Backstory: This is what made the original trilogy. Again: Clone wars, a Jedi order wiped out, a father betrayed and killed, destiny, obscure powers, a Senate dissolved, a rebel Alliance fighting for freedom... These capture the imagination, demand in-depth storytelling. But when Lucas went back to tell these stories, not only did he not do them justice (they were all less compelling than they originally sounded), but he doesn't bother to go farther back with his universe. If you watch the prequel trilogy, nothing comes before. Why didn't he show more about the parts of the Galaxy not under full Republic control? Why didn't he hint about how the Jedi were established? Or how they became an integral part of the Republic? Or how the Republic was established? Or tell us more about how Jedi are discovered and trained? Or more about what function they actually perform? Are they warriors? Secret Agents? Generals? Advisors? They seem to be all of these things, and more...and yet he never shows them doing any of these things all that successfully (well, except maybe as a secret agents), so I'm left with wondering exactly why the Jedi hold such an important position. How did the rebels get their start? How did they develop all their own weaponry? Exactly how oppressive was the Empire? To tell the truth, it's almost as if Lucas never once considered the actual history of his galaxy; it's almost as if the galactic order sprung into being, whole-cloth, just in time for Anakin to show up. It almost makes me think that the best parts of the Star Wars story came from Alan Dean Foster (who ghost-wrote the original Star Wars novel), and Lucas lacked the imagination to that sort of thinking on his own.

Consistency: Whew, I could write a novel-length section on this issue. Metachlorians? Leia is Luke's sister? Obi-wan ages twice as fast as everyone else in the story? Most of the big issues have been covered more ably by others. But here's a few I haven't seen other people mention: If the Jedi are such a big deal, known throughout the galaxy, how come everyone else is so absolutely disdainful and disbelieving of the force and the Jedi just 20 years later? And didn't Episode IV start with Palpatine dissolving the Senate and declaring himself "Emperor"? How does that fit with Amidala's pronouncement of the Empire in Episode III?

If Anakin is such the prodigy in the Force, why did he not seem to advance in power at all from the end of Episode III to the beginning of Episode IV? If Obi-Wan Kenobi is such a sub-par Jedi, how come he is the one that survives? Would it have hurt the story at all for Anakin to have turned to the dark side in a quest for power, rather than respect? The way Lucas sets up the prequels, it makes it look like Obi-Wan's beating Anakin was a lucky accident. (And the last-minute mention of "holding the high ground" is ridiculous; just another thing that Lucas pulled out of his butt at the last minute like the 'metachlorians'.

I've discovered that the Jedi and their powers were originally remarkably similar to the "JiangHu" swordsmen/adventurers from Chinese stories and jasmin live legends. As in, some guys have some special powers. Why they have these powers isn't really explained, except they've gone through some special training. Some use these powers for good, some for evil. You can change from one to the other, depending on your character. They work with the governmental authorities, but aren't really a part of the government. In fact, the JiangHu swordsmen of China are just like our comic-book superheros. And that's the way I thought Lucas originally presented them. So to me, it is a violation of consistency to make them be an official part of the government. It also makes them far less interesting and does much to make the prequels far less compelling. Had he continued to treat them as honorable but quasi-respectable vigilantes, the story of Anakin's fall to become Vader would have been far more interesting.

Would it have killed Lucas to find a better way to reinforce Obi-Wan's character than to just say, "How uncivilized" about blasters? How about showing us how a light-saber is more civilized, somehow...maybe by showing that despite their power, they are highly inaccurate, spray-n-pray weapons?

If Obi-Wan Kenobi was hiding out on a planet (okay, it's been pointed out numerous times that it would be dumb for him to continue to use the same last name...unless "Kenobi" is the galactic equivalent of "Smith" or something), would he really have continued to wear the official Jedi uniform? For twenty years? And why, exactly, would the Jedi Uniform be so wonderfully appropriate for a desert environment? Meaning: flowing robes that help block the sun and enhance the cooling effect of perspiration. Deciding to make the official Jedi uniform the same as what Obi-Wan wore on Tattoine was a stupid choice from a consistency viewpoint.

I'm going to have to add more to this later.

Memorial Day

I'm in a very strange situation.

I'm not into ceremony. And yet, I've chosen to make my career in a field in which tradition and ceremony are of the utmost importance.

I don't really like weddings and graduations and retirements and other such ways of marking occasions. They are so much hassle, and too many people get so hung up on the ceremony that if anything goes wrong, they feel it actually diminishes the fact the ceremony is attempting to memorialize. I hate hassle. I hate standing around waiting for something to happen. I hate someone trying to be wise and pithy and relevant in a 10-minute speech. And I really hate when someone talks longer than 10 minutes! [grin]

But I do understand why ceremony is necessary. I understand that it is the tradition and ceremony that supports and reinforces the concept of selfless service for most servicemembers. For the younger/newer servicemembers, remembering the fallen is a promise that they, too, will be remembered and honored among the greatest of the warriors if they make the ultimate sacrifice.

That means that even though I won't want a ceremony when I retire, I'll have one.

And so even though I really don't like Memorial Day celebrations, I participate. Not necessarily with gusto, but without complaint or reluctance. Not this year, though...our unit wasn't tasked for anything, and I have been too busy to search out a ceremony to join on my own.

No Surprise To Me

The Red Lake School Shooter (or whatever name they end up deciding on) was on Prozac.

The Columbine High School killers were also on anti-depressants for several years.

At the time, I remember an article stating that anti-depressants only work on kids for so long, and then the depression returns stronger than before, usually resulting in suicide.

It seems that using anti-depressants is a brute-force method of treating the symptoms only. Without dealing with the actual cause, the body's electro-chemical system finds away around the pharmaceuticals and gets back to the way it wants to do business.

Just another reason we shouldn't so easily drug our children. The long-term use of pharmeceuticals in a child's developing hormonic and neurotransmitter system just seems to be asking for trouble.

GM Decides to Become a Niche Company

But he pulled the plug on the North America models after determining the vehicles could not be engineered and assembled to sell at prices competitive with the popular Chrysler 300C, Ford Mustang and other models, without sacrificing quality and content.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not happy about this. I would prefer to purchase a good car at a good price from an American car maker.

...but to be frank, I can't. Not for what I want, not with the money I need to be careful with in order to continue to take care of my family.

After musing over this situation for the last several months, including some near-arguments with my-friend-with-connections-to-the-US-automotive-industry, Jo, here's where I think the Big3 failed:

They never realized when the terms of the "internal dialogue" war changed.

Remember the term "planned obsolescence"? From what I understand, it was never a proven thing in the car industry, but the idea was that car-makers would use materials good enough to last until the car was paid off (80k to 100k miles), but not beyond that. Whether or not that was an urban legend, it does seem that American cars are falling apart by the time they reach 100k miles, that often fuels a desire for a new car.

Now, that was fine when it was only American cars on the market. But when there are more choices, and someone can buy a car for the same price that won't be falling apart at 80k miles...don't you think more people would buy it? I often see Audis and VWs and Hondas and Toyotas that look brand new even at 3-4 years old. Can you say that about any domestic product?

Part of that is using good materials and top-notch paint jobs (that still look new-shiny after 3 years). Part of it is choosing styles/designs that might look somewhat "blah" at first, but the very aspect that makes them not stand out when new makes it harder to tell when the current "style" has passed by.

Anyway, back to the internal dialogue issue:

When I bought my C-RV, I really enjoyed the test drive. I liked the visibility, the seat felt comfortable, and it had plenty of power and room. But I was in Hawaii...what is adequate for that location doesn't work in Spokane, where you have to cross a mountain range to get anywher else, just about.

While C-RVs are quite popular, retaining excellent resale value, I wouldn't buy another one. Why not? Because my internal dialogue is something like, "Sheesh. For the price I paid for it, I could have bought a nicely-equipped Accord. Instead, I paid 'Accord' prices for 'Civic' amenities..." And, "Wow, that road noise is bad. I can't hear the subtleties of that song without turning it up loud enough to inhibit chaturbate conversation! It would be even worse if I tried to listen to classical music, where the fortes are too loud if you set it for the pianos, or if you set it for the proper level on the fortes, the pianos are inaudible!" Or, "Man! That engine sounds like it is going to explode going up to the pass!"

But with my new Suzuki Verona S, the internal dialogue includes things like, "Mm-mm! I still like how the car looks. The grill/hood look tough, the line of the sill looks rakish. I think it compares pretty well to a Toyota Camry!", and, "Hear that door close? Even if you close it lightly, you still get that 'Japanese thunk' of a solid, tight doorframe!", or, "Boy! It sure took that corner nice! I feel glued to the road!", or, "This is a really nice interior. Comfortable. I can hear the music clearly on just "3", and can still talk to the kids!" And under all this love is the thought, "I would have paid $4-6k more for an Accord or Camry! Sure, it would have been even nicer, with better gas mileage...but not $5k nicer! And a US car wouldn't be this nice for anything less than $10k more!"

Now, Suzuki could still lose me. I'm irritated with the low fuel economy. Sure, it's smooth...but they could have had the same smoothness if they'd used a Continuously-Variable Transmission, which would have given it even better mileage than the average sedan. But Toyota and Honda are on the forefront of car technology for a reason. Suzuki is about 5 years behind on engine technology, I think. 20/28 would have been industry standard then. But, over the life of my ownership of the car, I might spend an extra $1000 on gas over an Accord, so it still seems worthy to me. However, the next time I buy a car, I'll probably be able to purchase an Accord or Camry easily, if not a BMW or Audi, so Suzuki must get a better engine. And if the car starts having lots of little problems with it while I still owe money, I'm not going to be so willing to give them another third/half-year's salary.

That's where the Big3 lose it. They don't pay attention to the minor details of designing the cabin experience to make someone sigh with pleasure every time they sit down. They don't always make the doors close solidly and firmly. They don't make sure the car holds together for a good long time. Sure, making a car last might mean someone waits another year to buy a car...but the way they do things now, the person probably buys a foreign car when their Big3 car starts to have too many annoyance problems, so what has the Big3 gained? Nothing.

I have a friend who plopped down a great deal of cash for a very nice Big3 performance car. It had a dozen minor things wrong with it before it reached 40,000 miles. He traded it in for another Big3 car, thinking that lightning couldn't strike twice...but when he ran into financial difficulties and tried to sell it back to a dealership, they pointed out exactly how shoddy the workmanship was. Not that he didn't already know it from driving it himself, but that highlights the problems of Big3, UAW-made cars: lack of quality, lack of concern over shoddy work and cheap parts.

You know, I used to sneer at the appearance of the early-90s Corolla and Accord. I did always like the early-90s Nissan Stanza, even though it was nearly the same...some minor difference of angles made me like its appearance, but what made me fall in love with it was driving one as a rental when our car was totalled. I never expected you could have the combination of power, quietness, and fuel economy. When it came time to buy to replace the totalled vehicle, we got a nearly-new Grand Am, and we were fairly pleased with it: good power and decent fuel economy. But its coolant system gave us no end of trouble, and so the Grand Am wasn't even on the list when I went looking for used cars a few years later...

We ended up buying a '95 Honda. I thought it was perhaps too small, and really didn't think much of its was just reliable transportation.

But after driving it for 3 years, I got to the point where I would think, "Huh. Nice looking car..." as I walked toward it in the parking lot. And after driving my '91 Toyota Corolla for a few years, I started feeling the same way about it. So now I think, "Hm, nice car" when I see one in good condition drive by. The early-90s Corolla/Camry are the epitome of bland...but they still look decent, and have plenty of room for normal-sized drivers and passengers. From 110k to 146k miles, it gave me zero mechanical difficulties. It had some cosmetic problems, like a sagging headliner and other functional irritations, like the outdoor handles breaking...but I fixed every one of them for less than $80 total from "Pick'N'Pull" lots. And even being 13 years old with nearly 150k miles, I replaced it for appearance reasons, not because it was used up. It probably has another 100k miles left on it, at least. I actually considered putting $2-3k into its appearance, instead. I finally decided it wasn't worth the risk, because I didn't know its history, and couldn't vouch for it having decent treatment throughout its life, only my portion of it.

...but I can't imagine even considering that for an American car, other than a top-of-the-line Caddy or Lincoln, or perhaps a classic car of some stripe. THe internal dialogue that goes along with a US car is something like, "What's that rattle? Should I bring it in to have it looked at? Shoot, they'll charge me $100 just to look at it and tell me it's nothing. But if I don't, the car will break down and I'll have to take the bus to work for a month. And I'll probably have to take the car in again a month later for the same thing. Why did that light come on? Do I smell burning oil...?"

I can't tell you how many Big3 cars I've been in where the owner tells me the "Check Engine" light comes on for no reason, and the dealer says to not worry about it, that it would cost more to fix than is worth it. I can't remember the last time I saw that on an import car, though.

And so all the Big3 have anymore is nostalgia. They only get hit cars when they strike some chord of memories of the past in styling...never, it seems, in quality or performance*. Apparently, they punted on those issues long ago.