The Last Jedi Is The First New Star Wars Film

Spoilers Ahead

When I saw The Last Jedi on opening night I was disappointed. There were parts of it I enjoyed, but overall it left me with an unpleasant, deflated feeling. I think there were two reasons for this. One was simply that it was a late showing, I was a little under the weather, and I had to be up for work early. The other reason for my disappointment was it wasn’t the film I thought that I wanted.

Since then I’ve been back and forth. I’ve read almost everything online about it, both positive and negative. For a time I was angry with it. I felt that it killed the nobility of both Luke Skywalker and the Jedi. But now my opinion has shifted. On a second viewing I enjoyed it a lot more and gained respect for the creative choices Johnson and co. made.

As many defenders of the film have pointed out, Last Jedi is primarily a disruptor of nostalgia. It isn’t just that it takes the story in a new direction; It disrupts and questions essential tenets of the Star Wars universe itself. As I thought more deeply about the things in the film that upset me, I realized that some of my own calcified opinions about Star Wars were themselves in need of shaking up.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to reflect on where I originally wanted the story to go. I think what I was looking for was a Luke who responded to Rey by grabbing the lightsaber, firing it, rediscovering his resolve and heroic nature. From there he would train her as Yoda trained him. She would sense the Resistance in danger and rush to help them and confront Kylo. Luke would warn her it was too soon. She’d go anyway, have an intense saber fight with Kylo, and get wounded in some significant way. That’s what my brain was looking for because that’s the frame of Empire Strikes Back. That frame worked so well it’s no wonder I would want to see it done over.

The thing with repetition of a story is it feels good at first but ultimately isn’t satisfying. That’s the overall problem with nostalgia in pop culture. I enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast. But there wasn’t much new about it, other than the novelty of seeing the story done by live actors. And I find that I have little desire to rewatch it. The original cartoon is still definitive for me. When I want the story that’s what I’ll return to(or even, gasp, the original written story).

So if Last Jedi had been more like Empire it probably would have satisfied me more on my first viewing. But I think I would be less likely to return to it. It also wouldn’t have generated the kind of discussion which Last Jedi is. If anything, all of the myriad responses and viewpoints on Last Jedi are proof that it’s a powerful film. You can’t talk this much about a dull or uninteresting story.

Ultimately I think the character of Luke comes out stronger in Last Jedi. For me Luke has always been etched into stone as the badass of Return of the Jedi in the black cloak. He’s the man who almost single-handedly revived the Jedi and saved the Republic. It’s hard to see cracks in our idols. But I’ve come to see that Last Jedi shows Luke cracked in order to show him reborn. When he confronts his own failure and the Jedi’s, we also must look at our own deification of the original films. The Jedi were far from perfect in those films. Through their misreading of Anakin they destroyed themselves and brought down the Republic. Obi-Wan patronized Luke and twisted the truth by lying to him about his paternity. To contemplate and face up to the failure of religion can itself lead to a strengthening of religion, which is perhaps the core theme of the film.

It’s hard to contemplate the heroic Luke killing Ben Solo. But it’s pretty clear this was a momentary response of despair to his realization that Solo had let the dark side in. Luke wouldn’t have actually gone through with it, yet in that moment of failure and weakness Ben Solo was lost for good and brought Luke’s whole Jedi restoration project crashing down. This is damn powerful drama and just the kind of complication the Star Wars universe needs to stay interesting. Especially because the story makes it clear that the Jedi are far from finished. Luke rejoins the fight, his long dark night of existential despair a necessary catharsis to carrying the Jedi forward. As Yoda reminds him, failure is a necessary teacher.

I still don’t think Last Jedi is a perfect film. The First Order/Resistance chase felt a little repetitive. And The First Order itself isn’t quite as interesting or complex as it could be. I would have liked a little more explication about how the First Order gained such dominance after the total ass-whipping the Empire suffered in Return of the Jedi. You’d expect republican values in the galaxy to be just a little stronger and more prevalent than a few harassed ships in flight.

While I loved Canto Bight, I still thought that whole subplot was a bit clunky and didn’t fit very well in the overall narrative. But quite frankly, there are more than a few plot elements in the original trilogy that can be critiqued as well. Those are immortal films, but we’ve also set them in stone and put them beyond criticism when even they have their imperfections. A lot like the Jedi when you think about it.

Obviously the pivotal scene in Last Jedi was the Rey/Snoke/Kylo scene. It’s one of the greatest scenes the franchise has ever done, and takes the conflict in an unexpected direction. Luke’s final battle was a fitting way for him to pass the torch and join the ranks of Obi-Wan and Yoda. As I think about the third film of this trilogy I now find myself anticipating it all the more. I can’t imagine what will happen because Johnson has made it next to impossible for Abrams to simply recreate Return of the Jedi. In this he has done fans and the Star Wars universe a major service. You can relive the greatness of a story by doing it over. But you can only move a story forward by doing something different.

Advertisements
Standard

A Skeptic’s Guide To Twin Peaks

I never intended to become a Twin Peaks fan. Around sophomore year of college my roommates were watching it and I hesitated to get drawn in. I’m not always a fan of the kind of meta-surrealist narrative David Lynch does. But when I sat down and watched a few minutes I was hooked. TP takes Lynch’s stylistic brilliance and weds it to an engrossing serial narrative about the subject Poe called the most poetical in the world: the death of a beautiful woman. But the story is so much more than that. It succeeds because it takes melodramatic subjects and imbues them with profound mythical and allegorical significance. Mark Frost deserves a lot of credit here for helping guide Lynch’s ideas into such an effective long form story.

Consider the relationship of Sheriff Truman and Agent Cooper, in many ways the core of the show. It’s such a great depiction of a friendship, how it can spring up in the most unlikely of circumstances. The two are opposite types in a similar field of work. Truman is a heartland law enforcement guy. Cooper is a cosmopolitan FBI agent. Truman is practical and by the book. Cooper is driven by Buddhist mysticism and totally unorthodox in his investigative procedures. Their friendship grows because of their differences, because they are fascinated by the way that the other does things. But deep down they have a similar ethical core and that’s the essence of their bond.

Twin Peaks depicts evil and human depravity in a very powerful way. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, there will always be an element of mystery in human sin. We almost never see Laura Palmer, but she’s such a powerful character in the show because of her dual nature. Like Dr. Jekyll she had destructive, base desires which she sought to fulfill in secret, until they ultimately destroyed her. But she is the show’s tragic figure. There is no blame or judgment cast upon her, but sadness and a giant sense of loss. Bobby sums this up at her funeral when he blurts out that the whole town is responsible for her death, because they knew she was hurting and no one gave her the help she needed.

As I’ve re-watched the show I’ve been struck by how relevant its themes are in the current cultural and political climate. Washington is a blue state but Twin Peaks is rural Washington and has cultural aspects we would associate with red America. It’s the mom and pop small town and it’s no accident that pie is such a prominent aesthetic set piece. Of course we learn there are many dark and depraved things going on in this town. But the show is not just another tedious expose on small town hypocrisy. It revels in the good aspects of small towns and the good people who struggle for decency and community amidst real challenges and temptations.

In some ways Twin Peaks is a recasting of the Garden of Eden story in an American setting. BOB is the snake, the malevolent, destructive force striking at Eden and leading its people astray. Certainly Lynch had no intention of making any sort of Christian theological message. Cooper’s Buddhism is the only religion presented in a positive light. But the show has a real grasp of sin and evil, and its supernatural dramatization of how good and evil interact is highly compelling. When the show goes otherworldly it raises goosebumps in the viewer. It shows the reality of evil, but also the persistence of good and the ongoing struggle between the two in both the natural and spiritual realms.

Twin Peaks famously sputtered in season 2 after revealing Laura Palmer’s killer. This crash and lack of narrative direction led to inevitable cancelation. But the show really got its mojo back in the last few episodes and ended with the mother of all cliff hangers. I’m really excited to see what’s in store with season 3. The fact that Lynch and Frost are in charge gives me confidence that we’re in for something special. Given Cooper’s age in the red room, it’s possible that Lynch foresaw this long gap in the narrative all along. Twin Peaks is a mystery with style and heart that always leaves you with something deeper to think about. We need stories like this now more than ever.

Standard

Excalibur and the Myth of the Moral Arc of the Universe

When the word myth comes up in daily conversation it almost always carries a negative connotation. We say “that’s just a myth” to identify some naive or potentially dangerous belief disproven by enlightenment and common sense. In our time myth = old made up story = no longer relevant.  But myth as a concept still represents deep truths about human existence and human cultures. We tell stories to understand ourselves better, and hundreds of years ago it was no different. 

John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur is still one of the greatest translations of an ancient myth to the screen. It took one of the most well known of myths, the story of King Arthur, and turned it into a meditation on the rise and fall of a political order. It shows a ruler and a society struggling to do what is just and right. The question of whether human civilization naturally grows more just has been on the minds of many lately. One of the most well-known of phrases is MLK’s ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Discouraged progressives might be tempted to say that such phrases are just another myth we tell ourselves. Excalibur attempts to show that these questions about civilization have been around for centuries. It’s an old story that reflects the fragmentation, hope, and brokenness of our modern world.   

Boorman and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg didn’t want to just retell the story of Arthur, which had already been done countless times in film. They sought to create a meta-myth on screen, a sweeping panorama of the Arthurian cycle that would be a commentary on the nature of mythical truth. They used Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as a base, but drew freely from other medieval traditions and rearranged certain characters and events. For wider symbolic reference they turned to Jessie Weston’s influential and erudite interpretation of Arthurian myth, From Ritual To Romance. The setting is meant to evoke the origins of British and, more broadly, Western civilization. As such it borrows elements from the dark ages and the medieval world.

Excalibur opens with a familiar situation. The land is hopelessly divided and in need of a unifying ruler. At first King Uther is that hope. He wields the sword Excalibur and makes a seeming truce with his enemies. But lust proves his fatal weakness, a flaw that prevents him from unifying the land. The magician Merlin uses trickery to help him seduce the wife of a rival Duke. Thus Arthur is born in less than honorable circumstances, and Merlin snatches him away and hides him as a designated “chosen one.”

Arthur is notably unremarkable when we draws the sword from the stone as a teenager. Nigel Terry plays him with a certain bumbling, awkward manner. But it’s his humility that helps him unite the land. This humility is emphasized to set him apart from his father, who had failed in the task. In the midst of battle with Uryens, Arthur falls to his knees and asks him to knight him. Deeply moved, Uryens does so, even though he could just as easily have cut off his head. Arthur is not afraid to make himself vulnerable because of his confidence in the rightness of his cause.

Arthur isn’t the most talented fighter or swordsman. Lancelot gets the better of him in their first meeting, and Arthur uses Excalibur to cheat and help him win, breaking it in the process. Remorseful, Arthur confesses his petty rage, that Lancelot was the better man. Only because of this penitence does the Lady of the Lake restore his sword and kingly authority. This epic humbling of Arthur is what gains him Lancelot and the total unification of the kingdom.

Arthur centers his new utopia in Camelot. When Lancelot brings the young Perceval to the castle for the first time it looks like the beginning of a market economy. Perceval wanders amidst sellers, conjurers, scientists, in a dazzling display of innovation and creativity. Camelot’s own post-war boom. Arthur’s Round Table stands for the unbroken unity of a government. The land is at peace, crops grow in abundance. “Where hides evil?” a confidant Arthur asks Merlin. “Always where you never expect it,” says Merlin dryly.

Nicol Williamson’s Merlin is a marvelous creation. He embodies, not just the tension between the dying pagan world and the emerging Christian one, but between foreknowledge and tragedy. He sees the doom written in Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship from the start, but recognizes the necessity of their union. “It is a time for men and their ways,” he says. But Merlin’s love for humanity means he can’t help entering into their struggles himself. Merlin, like many a spiritual or religious advisor, is drawn out of monastic resignation into the less pure, worldly affairs of men.

Excalibur is situated between pagan and Christian Europe. Arthur is a Christian king and his rule follows Christian rituals. But the old pagan ways remain intermixed with everything. Like the modern West, the relationship between political order and divine agency is fraught and complex. Arthur is deeply connected to the land. When he does well, the land blossoms. When he falters, the land decays. Did God, or the gods, ordain this arrangement? It’s a question as mysterious as the same one in our modern world, and can provoke the same contentious debate.

The trouble in Arthur’s utopia sits with Lancelot and Guinevere. Their affair is not simple lust, but a deeper love which both resist for a long time. But eventually they yield, and Arthur relinquishes Excalibur as a sign of his disgust and feeling of failure. Soon after an incestuous dalliance with his half-sister Morgana produces a son, Mordred.

The place of women in the film is a difficult one. They have to navigate a world largely defined by male sexual desire. Morgana is using the most basic weapon she has against Arthur. Her own mother was taken advantage of by Uther, aided by Merlin’s magic. Merlin’s own complicity in this shows his own complicity in the fallen state of humanity. Though Morgana is a villain, she is a tragic one and we are meant to sympathize a bit with how she got there. Merlin’s own dark and suppressed love for her is visible in their interactions. Williamson and Helen Mirren allegedly didn’t get along well, and in their scenes together you can cut the tension with a knife.

After impregnating Morgana, Arthur is struck by lightning in an implied act of divine punishment. His kingdom is struck as well. With famine and economic catastrophe it becomes a wasteland. As all nations do in such misfortune, Camelot searches for a means of revival. For Arthur this is the Grail, and he sends his knights in search of it. The film emphasizes the weary hopelessness of the quest, as most of his men fall and Mordred grows in power. Meanwhile, Lancelot, frozen in guilt, has turned wild-eyed apocalyptic itinerant preacher. “Christ has abandoned us!” he screams at Perceval when they stumble upon one another. In Perceval and Lancelot we see two different responses in a fallen society. Lancelot sees only divine punishment in the fallen state of things. He sees restoration through intense and gloomy penitence. Perceval is different. “I can’t give up hope, Lancelot. It’s all I have” he tells him. For Perceval, the Grail represents hope and the quest for it the refusal to surrender hope. The finding of the Grail is a beautifully filmed sequence set to music from Wagner’s Parsifal. Much of the film is organized this way and it give narrative flow an epic, dreamlike quality.

With the Grail’s power, Arthur and Camelot are restored enough to make a final stand against Mordred. Arthur visits Guinevere in a convent, offers his forgiveness, and asks for hers. Again, Arthur’s humility restores Excalibur to his hands, as she reveals she has kept it with her since he surrendered it. Lancelot rejoins Arthur in battle and briefly all is restored. But leaders can’t live forever and neither can Arthur. Excalibur sleeps with the Lady of the Lake, waiting to be claimed again by the just and the wise.

Excalibur might seem worlds away from our democratic age. But its dramatization of the tension between justice and power couldn’t be more relevant. A large part of the US feels that something precious was lost in the most recent presidential election. The other half of the country feels vindicated and energized at the restoration of their power. Our divisions are rooted in different conceptions of a just and fair society. In Excalibur a justly ordered society proves a fleeting ideal, but one which good people are willing to sacrifice for. The myth of the moral arc of the universe doesn’t seem like much comfort to liberals right now. But great political and social leaders have always understood the mysterious role of our own agency in bending the arc. Excalibur is a film about flawed humans who struggle to do what is right, build something special, lose it, and fight to win it back. Myths can help us bend the arc, and sustain us when the Grail we struggle for seems hopelessly distant. If the moral arc is a myth, then it is a good one worth holding on to, much like Excalibur.

Standard

Blood Father: A Beautiful, Violent Hymn To The Illusive American Dream

Everyone has a story. No matter where people are in life there are a web of events that brought them there. Perhaps our worst judgments are made when we fail to consider a person’s web, or forget that we could be where they are if our own web were different. Blood Father is a film about people on the wrong side of the American Dream. They don’t have great degrees and well-paying jobs. They are the white working class “problem” we read about in so many think pieces. It’s a very good pulp thriller that also provides a timely political picture of where a big part of the country is right now.

Mel Gibson plays John Link, a tattoo artist and ex-con living in a trailer park in the Southwestern US. As he tells us in his AA meeting to open the film, his life is a series of addictions, f ups, and broken relationships. But he hasn’t given up; he’s genuinely trying to do better in spite of it all. It’s no accident that Gibson is so good in this role. Whether or not you can look past his troubling history is up to each individual. No doubt that it’s easier for me to do because I’m not Jewish, or black, or a woman. But he is so good in this role and it’s a reminder of what a captivating, likable presence he can be on screen. The role gives him the kind of material he works best with, and I hope he can keep it together and similar stuff will come his way again.

The film’s drama comes when Link is reunited with his estranged daughter Lydia. She’s run afoul of the Mexican cartels and has a death mark on her. From here the film becomes a chase story with Link attempting to keep her safe. He sees her heading down the same path he followed and wants to stop it. She’s the hope and bright future that he has lost. If he can save that for her, he will have redeemed a part of himself.

Michael Parks has a great bit role as Preacher, a former associate of Link’s now living on a compound selling Nazi memorabilia online. He’s a chilling example of the kind of existence Link could descend to, and Link recoils from him because of it. The film’s political commentary is subtle rather than overt and that makes it all the more powerful. At one point Lydia gives a witty response to the “they’re taking our jobs” argument that’s more effective than a thousand speeches. The cartel members haunt the film like ghosts. Why would you join a cartel? In many cases because you have no other opportunity of purpose. The backgrounds of Mexican cartel members and the blue collar whites in Link’s trailer park are not entirely different. They are all people that the Dream bypassed.

What Link and his daughter are searching for is a sense of hope, dignity, and purpose. That’s all anyone really wants. Blood Father is a moving dramatization of that struggle. In an America where the Dream seems often illusive, it’s good to remember the dignity of those still struggling for it. As someone who was born with all the advantages that John Link was not, I recognize that with another web my story would be very similar to his own.

Standard

In Defense of Ghostbusters II: A Superb Kid’s Fantasy Film

It’s the nature of sequels to disappoint. The fact that a sequel gets made in the first place (usually) indicates something special about the original. Occasionally you get a Godfather II or Empire Strikes Back that surpasses the original, but most of the time the sequel just isn’t going to be as good as the first. That’s always been the problem for Ghostbusters II. Ghostbusters was that rare blockbuster that did something truly original. To combine big budget Lovecraftian horror and witty adult comedy was a huge gamble that paid off big time. Ghostbusters II lacks the otherworldly horror of Gozer and takes the edge off the adult humor of the original.

In spite of all this, I love Ghostbusters II and consider it a great film. It suffers when compared to the original, but judged on its own merits it’s a damn impressive kid’s fantasy film. Whatever Bill Murray’s regrets about it, he turns in one of the funnier performances of his career and has a number of memorable lines:

Valentine’s Day. Bummer.

You know, I’m a voter. Aren’t you supposed to lie to me and kiss my butt?

Boys. Boys. You’re scaring the straights, OK.

Then there’s his rant against Vigo near the end, where he chides the “bonehead” pick of choosing to return to grungy New York rather than “living the sweet life out in Southern California’s beautiful San Fernando Valley.” When I was little I could quote that rant in its entirety and remember cracking up my parents and other adults with it. Speaking of Vigo, he’s definitely no Gozer. But he’s campy fun. The scene where Vigo first appears in the painting to Janosz did used to scare the crap out of me, and I still think it has a certain eerie power. Peter MacNicol plays Janosz as a lackey with just the right amount of menace under his comic, awkward exterior. When he randomly picks a piece of lint out of Dana Barrett’s hair the effect is delightfully creepy.

Many critics dislike the slime, but I think it works well as a fantasy device and gives the film some of its funner moments, like Ray dangling over the slime as a creature’s appendage reaches for him. If anything, the characters are so enjoyable that it’s great to see them reunite and get some action and good lines. It’s certainly true that some of the broader plot mechanics of the film echo the first. The boys start out disgraced and down on their luck, then are given the opportunity to bust a ghost and prove their legitimacy, then are called upon to tackle a larger supernatural threat to the city. But the movie still manages to be inventive and visually engaging in how it builds to its Statue of Liberty climax. Perhaps they got carried away with the slime and too far away from the characters. But it still stands shoulders above most other blockbusters.

Standard

Bizarro Donald Trump Delivers 2016 Acceptance Speech

On July 21st Donald Trump took the RNC stage in Cleveland to accept the GOP nomination for President. His remarks were…bizarre to say the least.

Thank you, thank you. You know, people love me. I know that people love me. But I love you people more. I mean, I really mean that. I love you people. And I want to serve you people. Serving is the best. I mean, I want to have the best service. I will serve the best. Because you people are the best.

But I want to serve everyone. That’s right. All of my haters out there. I love you and I will serve you. You know we’ve got the illegal immigrants here. Let me tell you something about the undocumented immigrants in this country. I love them. Fabulous, fabulous people. Let me say this. I would die if I had to do the kind of work these people do outside in the fields. No, it’s true. I would not survive and neither would you. Have you ever been outside in July in a state like North Carolina? Just walking to my car I feel like I’m going to melt. And these undocumenteds, they get out in those fields and they harvest our food. For not nearly enough pay by the way. We’re going to change that when we get in by the way. We’re going to get them the pay they deserve. But, you know, they pick our food from the ground. And my God, wouldn’t we be screwed if they weren’t here to do that? Because let me tell you I can’t get out in those fields in North Carolina in July. Can you? Of course not. Beautiful people. We’re going to treat our migrant workers and pickers right when we’re in the White House.

Now I want to talk about the women. I cherish women. I really do. And we’ve got this abortion thing. What a tough thing this abortion thing is, isn’t it? Really tough. Really tough. A lot of opinions about the abortion thing going on out there. You know I cherish women to do the right thing. Let the women and the doctors make the choice. That’s what I say. Let the women and the doctors make the choice. I’m glad I don’t have to make that choice and I don’t want to. Trust the women and the doctors.

How about Muhammad Ali right? I mean, what a competitor. Gave up the best years of his career to protest Vietnam. What a great American. And he was right about that, wasn’t he? What a disaster Vietnam was. Just like Iraq. Total disaster. Our incompetent leaders sending our fabulous troops into harms way and being totally irresponsible in how they are leading our fantastic troops. Thank God for Muhammad Ali. You know, the Muslims can be really great, can’t they? The people like Muhammad Ali, they help make America great. That’s how we’ll beat ISIS. Not through a bunch of dumb wars. But through people like Muhammad Ali that know how to do the right thing. We’re going to do the right thing when we’re in the White House believe me. No more torture. We’re not gonna do like ISIS and the Nazis with the waterboarding thing. Nasty, nasty people do those sorts of things. And we’re Americans, we’re better than waterboarding. No way Jose. We’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to defend ourselves honorably and smartly. I like to do things smartly and that’s how we’re going to fight ISIS and beat them. 

How about money, right? Money is great. I love money. But let me tell you what the problem is in this country right now. Not enough people have money. And it seems like the harder people work, the less money they have. We’re going to change that. We’re going to make these billion dollar companies pay their workers the fair wages that they’ve earned. We’re going to raise the minimum wage. It’s a total disgrace that people that work hard at McDonalds are eligible for food stamps because the billionaires who run McDonalds won’t pay them a fair wage. That’s going to change. We’re going to make sure that everyone has enough money to live on. And we’re not going to cut off trading with other countries. Good grief have you seen the TVs that Japan is making now? What awesome TVs. I have five of them on my wall at home and I just turn all five on and just watch five shows at once. It’s fantastic. No, we’re not going to cut off trade. We’re going to start making great products here in America. We’re going to help develop the new companies and the new worker talent to make great things here in America that we can trade to the Japanese for more of those fantastic TVs. 

And health care. Man, the health care thing is always such a mess. But we’re going to make sure that everybody has access to health care that they can afford…

At this point Mr. Trump’s microphone was cut off and a giant net engulfed him and yanked him violently from the stage. After much chaotic deliberation among the delegates, it was decided to hold a new vote to determine the 2016 GOP nominee. The nomination was won at 4 AM on the hundredth ballot by a hologram of Ronald Reagan.

Standard

Back To School’s Joyful Fusion of High and Low Brow

Movies and TV took a long and complicated path to gain acceptance as high art.  In the case of film, you might point to the rise of auteur directors in the 60’s and 70’s who sought to make film as complex as a novel.  In the case of TV you might point to the rise of critically acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad.  But a generally unacknowledged high point in bridging the divide between the screen and high art was the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School, first released thirty years ago on June 13, 1986.  It is certainly a “light” entertainment in its implausible scenarios and tidy plot points.  But it was arguably one of the first mainstream films to take the liberal arts tradition seriously and merge it into a more popular entertainment. 

Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, an immigrant son and self-made clothing store tycoon who, upon the collapse of his marriage, decides to pay his son Jason a visit at college. When he finds Jason discouraged and ready to drop out, he decides to enroll with him side by side to give him encouragement. The screenwriters wanted to explore the idea of what it would be like to relive one’s college years having gained wealth and prestige. Such a concept could have produced an insufferable film. Instead it made for a moving one about the joy of learning and the different ways that learning takes place.

The supporting cast nicely balances Dangerfield’s exuberance and one-liners. At times Robert Downey Jr. comes close to stealing the show as Derek Lutz, Jason’s friend and the embodiment of the cynically hip liberal arts student. Lutz bashes social conformity and likes to go an tangents about “proletarian chicks in bondage” and such moonshine. Because Downey is such a great actor we see that such talk masks a certain restless nature and insecurity. When Jason’s crush Valerie Desmond approaches, Lutz shyly steps aside and moves Jason in between them.

Dangerfield soon finds his own crush in Dr. Diane Turner, his English professor. Again, the film requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief for us to believe its aging student protagonist could successfully romance his professor. But Sally Kellerman is great in the role, especially in Melon’s first class with her when she enraptures him with a reading from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses. If anything, the scene makes Joyce’s notoriously difficult language more engaging and effective by reworking it into such an accessible form. Melon’s literal visualization of Turner as Molly is uproarious and irreverent; perhaps such irreverence is what Ulysses needs to break free from its portentous reputation. While tutoring Melon later on Turner presses him on his lack of reading, to which he responds, “Who has time? I see the movie, I’m in and out in two hours.” Thornton’s frankness prompts Turner to offer this beautiful defense of reading in postmodern times: “The reason you want to read these works is so you can experience them for yourself, so you can share the thoughts and feelings of the writer without the interference of your actor and director and professor’s point of view, to truly share and understand the common feelings of all mankind, the feelings of being alive.”

In the film’s most memorable scene Turner has Melon recite Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night from memory in order to avoid getting expelled for plagiarism. It’s easy to forget today what a daring call this was on the part of the filmmakers. Nothing like it had ever been done in a mainstream comedy, and according to interviews Dangerfield himself was incredibly nervous about it. But he did beautifully with it, aided by the addition of Melon’s own interpretation of the poem: “It means I don’t take shit from no one.” Indeed, the film is probably most responsible for the phrase “against the dying of the light” entering the popular lexicon. Dangerfield’s recitation also has a fittingly stirring accompaniment by Danny Elfman. Elfman, in transition phase between rock star and film composer, pulled double duty here by contributing the score and performing with Oingo Boingo in a party scene.    

No doubt parts of Back To School now seem dated. Amidst our growing awareness of the sexual assault epidemic on campuses, it’s hard to laugh at Thornton Melon bursting into a sorority shower and telling the screaming girl, “you’re perfect!” And at one point Valerie painfully says to Jason, after he helps her with homework, “It’s not hard for you because you’re smart.” But, other than these blips, the film remains an empowering vision of what the college experience is all about. It’s the adventure of finding yourself through exposure to higher ideas and texts, combined with the exhilaration of being untethered and free to wander and party with fellow seekers. College is an odd combination of the disciplined requirements of studying and the aimless fun of partying and hanging out. Back To School captures that dichotomy very well. It succeeds as narrative art because it manages to be an escapist comedy with a big heart that isn’t afraid to ask its audience to reflect a little on big ideas and thoughts. The story is anchored by Melon’s happy discovery that it is never too late for the liberal arts experience. That vision remains endearing and fresh, even after thirty years.

Standard