Saturday, October 21, 2023

If You’ll Permit Me to Nerd Out for Just a Minute: Star Wars

Writing has always been an important outlet for me, and when I do write, it is usually about teaching, but I’m finding that as much as I would like to, I simply do not have the bandwidth in this chapter of my life to blog regularly about education. But I do have both the desire and bandwidth to “nerd out” in writing, so that is what I hope to do from time to time moving forward. 

Like most millennials, the original Star Wars trilogy was an important part of my childhood. Having been born in 1986, I was about a generation too young to have watched the films in theater when they first came out, so aside from a couple of bad 80’s Ewok movies and the novels, the VHS cassettes of those three films were all we young Star Wars fans had to go on. And oh, did we watch those movies–over and over and over. The lightsabers and blasters, the light side vs. the dark side, the dogfights in space, the swashbuckling “boring conversation anyway” Han Solo, the terrifying and mysterious Darth Vader–all of it captured our young imaginations with an overwhelming sense of fun. 

For us mid-80’s-born millennials, our coming of age coincided with the advent of the Worldwide Web and the very first online movie trailers. So I remember watching the first trailer for the first movie in the long-rumored prequel trilogy on a school computer when I was in 6th or 7th grade. For my group of friends, it’s safe to say that the long wait for Episode One: The Phantom Menace meant that we had built our expectations sky high. 

I remember going to see The Phantom Menace with a large group when we were in 8th grade. My sense was that we all came away having enjoyed the pod-racing and the lightsaber duels, but beyond that, we were trying very hard to like the rest of the movie. Even at the time, Jar-Jar Binks’ comic relief fell flat for us, and the ham-fisted attempt at political commentary with the trade federation’s blockade (right down to Viceroy Nute Gunray as a thinly-veiled stand-in for then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich) went over our heads, and wouldn’t have interested us much, even if it hadn’t.

A somewhat smaller group of us drove to the theater to watch Episode Two: Attack of the Clones in 2002, and while we were old enough by this point to have crushes on Natalie Portman, we were also clear-headed enough to notice that the dialogue was clunky and the performances, not great. 

When Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith came out in 2005–just after my first year of college–I watched the movie with my brother and one other friend. It felt better than Attack of the Clones, but by then, it had become fashionable for millennials to hate on the prequels, so I was predisposed to dislike Revenge of the Sith going in. 

As I finished college, started my teaching career, and got married, I was too busy to notice the animated show “The Clone Wars”, which ran from 2008-2014, or “Rebels”, which ran from 2014-2018. I got my hopes up after watching Episode Seven: The Force Awakens in theaters with my wife–though the plot was little more than a retread of the original, it had that sense of fun that the prequels had been missing for me. But due to bad press about Episode Eight, I didn’t watch it until a year or two after it had come out, on Netflix by myself (I wasn’t a fan), and I have never bothered to watch Episode Nine. 

All this to say, I have been a jaded Star Wars fan for a lot of years. In my early years of teaching, I could score easy laughs from my students by trashing on the Star Wars prequels in class. After all, my earliest students were also millennials who had set impossible expectations for the prequels. Then, something changed. I cannot say exactly when, but certainly by 2016, a number of my students would push back when I would criticize the prequels. In fact, many of them connected to the prequels more than they did to the originals!

Then in 2019, The Mandalorian came out and immediately won over my wife and I, becoming appointment viewing when the new episode would drop each week. It had that classic Star Wars sense of swashbuckling and fun, and unlike the sequel trilogy, each new episode kept delivering on that promise. I did get the sense that there were references I was missing, and lore that had been explained elsewhere that I had to piece together myself. This did not ruin my viewing experience, but rather piqued my curiosity. My students who so adamantly defended the prequels would also insist that I “needed to watch Clone Wars” to really understand The Mandalorian. In 2022, one 11th grader asked me when I had last watched the prequels. I admitted that it had been at least ten years, if not more. The time had come to watch them again.

Since then, I have rewatched the prequels and watched three seasons of The Clone Wars. Here are my thoughts:

  1. The prequels marked a milestone in filmmaking that I had not fully appreciated at the time, namely a more thorough and successful use of green-screen and CGI than any movie had attempted up until that point. Even in the 70s, George Lucas had been on the cutting edge of special effects, and the use of computer animation was simply the logical extension.  Of course, using CGI heavily comes at a cost–it is harder to deliver masterpiece performances against a green screen, and acting opposite tennis balls that represent a character who will be animated in later. And now, with two decades worth of really bad CGI-heavy action movies clogging up our streaming platforms, the breakthrough represented by the prequel trilogy is harder to appreciate than it ought to be. They served as a proof-of-concept for what is possible with CGI.

  2. The lightsaber choreography really is brilliant. The fact that the actors learned and executed much of this swordplay themselves is nothing short of remarkable.

  3. The story, in broad brush-strokes, is really compelling: prequels run the risk of lacking suspense since we as the viewers know how everything will turn out, so the drama needs to come instead from the feeling of dread and inevitability. In The Godfather, Part II, knowing who Don Corleone becomes–and what his family becomes–is part of what makes watching his backstory so magnetic. Likewise, knowing Darth Vader’s story makes watching Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the dark side all the more engaging and tragic. 

  4. I still do not think the performances are very good, but I firmly believe that this had little to do with the actors and actresses, and almost everything to do with George Lucas’ direction and writing. One only needs to watch other films with Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and Samuel L. Jackson to recognize that each of these actors can turn in a powerhouse performance. The Obi-Wan series and the Ahsoka series provide more than ample proof that Hayden Christensen is a fine actor, too. The issue, then, was with George Lucas’ dialogue and direction. I don’t think it’s any accident that Empire Strikes Back–widely regarded as the best of the original trilogy, and one of the best films of all time–was the only one for which George Lucas neither wrote nor directed.

  5. George Lucas also took some shortcuts in his storytelling in Revenge of the Sith: as viewers, we’re supposed to believe that Anakin Skywalker has become a respected general and jedi knight in the three years since Attack of the Clones, and yet this is only ever told, but not shown. Much of what we see is Anakin sulking when he is not granted the rank of “master” on the jedi council, fretting about how to protect Padmé after his visions show her dying, and then ultimately giving into the dark side. But because we have not been privy to his character’s growth since Attack of the Clones (in which he was written as whiny, brash, petulant, and immature), we as the viewers simply cannot buy that Anakin deserves to be taken seriously. When he is denied the rank of master, we side with the jedi council for what looks to be a reasonable decision. 

This is where The Clone Wars comes in.  The Clone Wars is not cinematic prestige TV–it is an animated show geared towards children. But it is a very good animated show geared towards children. And it does the legwork of character and story development that George Lucas failed to provide in the prequels themselves. In The Clone Wars, we meet an Anakin who has been forced to stop being a padawan and start being a jedi knight–and teacher and general–too soon due to the outbreak of the Clone War. But Anakin, whom Obi Wan and others believe to be the “Chosen One” who will bring balance to the force, rises to meet his circumstances more often than he fails. We see him take foolish risks and learn from his mistakes. He doesn’t become cautious or timid as the series goes on, but his boldness becomes tempered with wisdom. Time and again, he proves himself to be a preternaturally skilled pilot and a thoughtful, caring commander whose compassion puts him directly at odds with the legalistic, often suffocating rules of the jedi order who disavow attachment of any kind. This compassion is most clear in Anakin’s friendship with Obi-Wan, his mentorship of Ahsoka Tano, his loyalty to R2-D2, and his secret marriage to Padmé. 

As the series goes on, it becomes obvious that Anakin is heading in a different direction than the jedi order, and that he’s not wrong! Due to the dismal writing in Attack of the Clones, which made Anakin and Padme’s relationship feel forced (no pun intended), rushed, and based largely on infatuation, that tension between Anakin and “the jedi code” never felt earned or believable in the prequels themselves. But The Clone Wars earns that tension beautifully, organically, and gradually, as the story unfolds. Moreover, by showing Anakin fight shoulder to shoulder with Yoda, Mace Windu, and other jedi, demonstrating his valor and skill time and again, I finally can appreciate Anakin’s shock and betrayal when the council refuses him the rank of master in Revenge of the Sith. After Anakin’s heroism and compassion save entire planets, it is all the more heart-wrenching to watch him slaughter the younglings in the jedi temple. After all that he and Obi Wan had been through–only hinted at in throwaway references in Revenge of the Sith–the emotional weight of their duel on Mustafar hits like a wrecking ball. 

The prequels will never replace the spot in my heart occupied by the original trilogy, but I have a newfound appreciation for them. They are not perfect films by any means, and it is clearer to me now more than ever that George Lucas needed to have Star Wars wrenched from his hands and placed in the abler hands of creative minds like Jon Favreau and David Filoni, but the prequels laid the groundwork for the brilliant and tragic story of Anakin Skywalker which unfolded in the original trilogies and continues to unfold in unexpected ways in some of the more recent Star Wars series. From the hope and idealism of my Star Wars fandom as a child to the cynicism and despair of my Star Wars fandom as a young adult, watching the Clone Wars and revisiting the prequels have only increased my appreciation for each new series that comes out. Anakin brought balance to the force after all, it would seem.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

In All Fairness, Revisited

 So, you finish school–whether that journey ends in high school, college, or graduate studies–and time does its relentless march.

In 2009, I moved to Japan, where my job at an international school required me to fly back to Tokyo before the fair for staff meetings each year.

My 20s came and went, as did most of my 30s.

Somewhere during that time, I got married and had two children.

Then, in 2022, my family moved from Tokyo to the U.S., settling down the road from where I had grown up.

Our visit to the fair–the first time ever for my wife and children–was my first in 14 years.

We visited again today in 2023, nearly 16 years since I wrote my original “In All Fairness” essay back in 2007 (feel free to read if you have about 15 minutes to spare, and please bear in mind that I was 21 when I wrote it), and I feel like I have enough to go off of now to write an addition.

Fair Enough: The Actual Adult Years

For a few years, I attended the fair vicariously through the pictures and updates that my mom, my sister, or my friends would send me. 

2011–the summer my sister left for college–turned out to be my parents’ last time to bring horses to the NWW fair, bringing a 20-year tradition to a close.

So, my return to the fair was as a visitor, and not a worker. As an adult in his late 30s, I couldn’t help but see the fair through the eyes of my young children. Things that had become so much part of the background noise during all of those years that I spent my week at the fair suddenly became new and interesting again:

I never realized how cool all of the tractors on display were! I also never realized how expensive a new tractor could be.

I am also partial to the dairy barn, as well as the goats, ducks, and chickens.

Like my kids, I marveled at the glitzy carnival rides, food vendors, and stands full of random knick-knacks. Unlike my kids, I noticed the price-tags and implemented a “just browsing policy”, except for a giant pink owl balloon for my daughter which cost about a third of my childrens’ monthly health insurance premium. 

This year, my mom treated the kids (and my reluctant dad and myself) to the Ferris Wheel, which hits differently when you’re a bit more aware of your own mortality. But the kids had fun, so some of that childlike wonder wore off on me.

The food vendors also hit differently when you’ve developed lactose intolerance, lost the quick metabolism you had in high school, and need to keep your cholesterol in the back of your mind. I did manage to enjoy a cheeseburger and curly fries from the Lynden Christian food booth, though. 

If going to the fair as a teenager is a place of “hellos”, catching up with friends before school starts to compare class schedules and share summer stories, and going to the fair as a college student is a place of “goodbyes” before you scatter to the winds, going to the fair as a 30-something is a place of “do I know that person?s”, seeing faces that look familiar, but it’s been 20 years, so you’re just not sure.  

That applies to more than the people–it’s like walking down a funhouse mirror hall of memories, where the familiar and the unfamiliar collide. New buildings and displays have gone up since 2008, and some have come down. The old dairy barn is now the site of a brilliant antique car display. The stalls from our family’s Haflinger Horse display–originally built by my Grandpa, then remodeled by a family friend, both now passed on–features a local farmer’s mules. Change upon change…

Going to the fair as a 30-something means the experience is invariably tempered by the kinds of community-wide worries that seldom cross the mind of a child: noticing that the Saturday crowds are smaller than they used to be; noticing that the display of sewed goods is confined to a small corner, and there are fewer quilts on display from only a handful of quilters; noticing that even the carnival section has downsized to the extent that there is no longer even a traditional carousel. You find yourself wondering about the viability and future of the fair as an institution, whether this is just part of the slow process of rebuilding post-pandemic, or part of a trend of decline. Will my children be able to experience the fair like I did?

The new Farming for Life exhibit is an encouraging sign of life and hope: I spent several hours browsing it last year, and decided to bring my 9th graders on a field trip for Geography class later on in the Spring. What I love about the exhibit is that it situates the fair-goer into a context much bigger than themselves: whether you are a Whatcom County resident, or a visitor, there’s a decent chance that you’ve enjoyed dairy or produce from Whatcom County, and a 100% chance that you’ve benefited from the love and labor of a farm somewhere in the world. The exhibit emphasizes the relationship between the land and its agriculture in Whatcom County in particular, delving into the history of farming in the county, educating on current commodities and local farms, and gently encouraging visitors to look to the future. One display features a wheel-of-fortune listing different careers connected to agriculture, a reminder that agriculture is not only a matter of working directly with livestock or the land, but is multifaceted, branching out into nearly every field of work, from science to engineering to technology to education and more. 

Will my children be able to experience the fair like I did?

Perhaps not exactly, but there’s hope, and I want my children to see themselves in this story as they grow up. 

(Maybe I’ll write another update to this essay in 20 or 30 years and make it a lifelong project :)

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Breath of the Wild's Soundtrack is a Masterpiece

First off, you read the title correctly--this is not a Tears of the Kingdom review; I'm not very far into the game and it will be quite some time before I am in a position to even attempt to review it. Instead, I am sharing a piece that I wrote nearly two years ago for my AP English students, as a sample to help them practice breaking down an argument, identifying qualifiers, evidence, key assumptions, etc. I stumbled upon this document while going over my documents in preparation for my classes for next year, and decided to share--Breath of the Wild may not be the newest Zelda game any longer, but its soundtrack still deserves acclaim:

When I plugged in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the first time in 2020--three years after the game was released--I had high expectations. And Breath of the Wild met those expectations head-on: I had an ear-to-ear grin on my face for the first three hours that I played, so much so that my cheeks and jaw ached for days afterwards.

For this sample argument, there were so many different directions I could have gone: I could have discussed the game’s breathtaking open-world experience; I could have raved about the addictive cooking mechanic, or the fact that there are multiple ways to solve every puzzle. However, I have chosen to discuss what was one of the most divisive aspects of the game when it was released in 2017: its soundtrack.  It’s fair to say that Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is unusual compared to every other Zelda title--VGMO, an online publication dedicated to reviewing video game soundtracks, stated that while the soundtrack was critically acclaimed, the fanbase was polarized, with some praising composer Manaka Kataoka’s innovations and others criticizing it as “directionless ambience” or “just random notes on a piano.”

I’m in full agreement with the first group of fans.  I’m not going to argue that it’s the best video game soundtrack ever; such matters are far too subjective.  I will say, however, that Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is a masterpiece because it perfectly fits--and enhances--the gameplay and setting.

Some quick context for those who are unfamiliar with the Zelda series: Legend of Zelda games are known for their big and bombastic soundtracks. YouTuber Pixeltea, in his analysis of the Breath of the Wild soundtrack, states that previous Zelda soundtracks all share one quality: they are all adventurous. There are so many classic tracks that seem to beckon the player into a grand adventure: the overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda and Link to the Past; the Hyrule Field themes from Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess; the Gerudo Valley theme from Ocarina of Time.  Each of these pieces is BIG, written to give the feeling of a full orchestra playing away.  In fact, by the time Skyward Sword was released in 2011, the game’s soundtrack actually was fully orchestrated.

Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is not big, at least not in the conventional way.  Indeed, one of the first things that might strike a new player when they actually start exploring the Great Plateau at the start of the game for the first time is the lack of music.  There are ambient noises: birds chirping; the breeze rustling through the leaves; the babbling of a far-off brook.  But it takes nearly a minute before the first soft chord progression plays--a lone piano--subtle and unobtrusive.  It’s so subtle that you might not even immediately notice it.  The overworld theme in Breath of the Wild is as understated as the overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda is bombastic, punctuated with long silences--impressionistic and tentative (Pixeltea).  

But it works.  It works because Breath of the Wild is set in a post-apocalyptic Hyrule (the kingdom in which most Zelda games take place).  In this game, the main villain--a demonic force known as Calamity Ganon--destroyed the world a hundred years before the events of the game began, wiping out entire cities and much of the population of Hyrule.  This is the biggest that Hyrule has ever been: the world-map spans an area roughly the size of the island of Manhattan, ranging from snow-covered peaks, to desert, to marshland, to rolling foothills, to a towering volcano, to rocky shores, and sandy beaches.  However, while the population of Manhattan is nearly two million, the population of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is just over two hundred, and most of those citizens live in the seven towns scattered across the land.  The player spends most of the game exploring the vast wilderness, far from any other people.  The overworld music captures that sense of solitude, and the feeling of a world one hundred years out from cataclysmic destruction, just as nature is starting to heal, overtaking the ruins of abandoned cities and ancient battlefields. The YouTube channel 8-bit Music Theory suggests that the cumulative effect of these musical choices, in partnership with the game’s visuals, gameplay, and overall setting is that Breath of the Wild feels like “the real story”, while the other Zelda games were “just legends you’d hear in Breath of the Wild’s world.”

The solitude of the overworld’s soundtrack stands out in contrast to the musical theme of each town--each town’s theme is melodic, homey, and welcoming, without the silence that punctuates the overworld theme, conveying the comfort of finally finding friendly faces.  Beach town Lurelin Village has a tropical-sounding steel-drum theme; Kakariko Village in the foothills has a Japanese folk-inspired koto ensemble; Gerudo Town has an upbeat sitar riff.  Each town feels like an oasis of community and home in the gameplay, each with its own distinctive culture, and the soundtrack reinforces that feeling. A particularly memorable sidequest involves building a new town in the middle of the wilderness with recruits from each of the main races in Hyrule.  As more citizens move into town, the musical theme expands to include motifs from each city, a glimmer of hope and unity in the midst of fragmentation.

The spare, solitary piano riffs of the overworld theme are also disrupted when danger strikes, whether it’s the rhythmic drumbeat and urgent horns that play while fighting Bokoblins or Moblins (weaker enemies), the frantic and pounding piano that plays while fighting Lynel or Yiga assassins, or the creepy, crescendoing discordance of a Guardian attack (all stronger enemies).  This music intensifies or fades depending on how close the player is to the attacking enemies.

In short, the soundtrack is living, breathing, and dynamic, seamlessly woven into the gameplay. This is an opinion shared by many video game critics.  Thomas Whitehead of Nintendo Life called the sound design “impressive… designed to blend with your actions and the world rather than define them”, while Jose Otero of IGN described how the “subtle musical queues matched the tempo of my adventure.”  Matt Peckham of TIME called the “restrained, often poignant musical passages” a “tour-de-force of complementary minimalism.”  Breath of the Wild is a vast game, but its vastness is largely unpopulated, full of mysteries to solve and ruins to explore.  Given this, less truly is more where the music is concerned. 

Of course, my argument rests upon the assumption that the quality of a soundtrack stems chiefly from how well it fits and enhances the setting and gameplay.  It is worth remembering that a soundtrack--unlike other categories of music--is specifically created in partnership with a story, with a setting, with a particular visual aesthetic, and exclusively to video games, with a particular type of gameplay design.  Soundtracks are not created primarily to be listened to on their own--though they certainly can be!--; they are created primarily to help tell a story, and create or enhance a setting.  While all of this may sound subjective--and perhaps it is, to some extent--I ask the reader to imagine Super Mario Bros, but with John Williams’ Imperial March from Star Wars theme playing in the background.  Or an epic role-playing game such as Undertale, Final Fantasy or Skyrim with the Among Us theme playing in the background.  My point is that no matter how technically perfect, no matter how impeccably composed a soundtrack may be–and for the record, I’m definitely not arguing that the Among Us theme is technically perfect–if it does not fit the game’s setting or gameplay, it will feel out of place, and both the game and the soundtrack will be the lesser for it.  

While bombast made sense for older Zelda titles, what if Breath of the Wild had tried to use a big, bombastic overworld theme?  Doing so would undoubtedly have undercut the feeling of solitude while exploring the wilderness, and however good the overworld theme might have been as an individual track, it would almost certainly become repetitive and stale, given the sheer size of the world map and the number of times that single track would play over and over again while traveling and exploring.  By contrast, unobtrusive and simple piano chords do not draw as much attention to themselves, do not get stuck in the player’s head in the way that catchy melodies do, and do not wear out their welcome, while the more melodic village themes are so refreshing and so briefly visited in the scheme of the whole game that they do not easily wear on the ears, either. 

Upset fans have complained that the soundtrack just doesn’t sound like Zelda music.  While it’s undeniably different from the musical style of previous Zelda games, the same could be said for any number of other stylistic choices in Breath of the Wild.  This is only the second game in the entire series (and the first 3D Zelda title) in which Link (the main character) can jump at will.  This is the first game in which shields, swords, and bows break after a certain amount of usage.  This is only the second game since the original to feature a fully open world.  This is one of the few titles in which Link does not have a magic meter.  Do any of these departures make Breath of the Wild any less a Zelda game?  If your answer is ‘yes’ to one but not the others, why the inconsistency?

Upset fans have also claimed that the soundtrack is not memorable; that fans cannot hum along to it.  I would contend that these are two different things, for starters, and that memorability does not equal “hum-ability”.  While players would be hard pressed to hum the overworld piano theme, those chords--or at the very least, the feelings they evoke--are memorable.  And some of the tracks are indeed hum-able: the village and stable themes are catchy, and in fact, if you are paying close attention, you can even find a few classic Zelda tracks snuck into the game as easter eggs!  Kyle Hanson, a critic for Attack of the Fanboy, said that “Breath of the Wild’s music isn’t as ‘in your face’ as other games in the series, which means that you likely won’t catch yourself humming its tunes years down the road, but you will appreciate the music for what it does, which is set the mood perfectly.”

And there it is--this strange, minimalist, impressionist, beautiful soundtrack does what a soundtrack ought to do: it sets the mood and helps to make the game all the more immersive.  Perfection is a lofty claim, but in this case, it is merited.  Because of its role in setting the mood, and enhancing the gameplay and setting, the Breath of the Wild soundtrack is, indeed, a masterpiece.