The Maestro frowned, and sighed. “It’s like Uno’s,” he intoned dolefully.
He and I were sitting at Pequod’s, a joint down on Clybourn that is often touted as one of Chicago’s premier pizza places. It was a Friday night; we were seated at a table in the middle of the restaurant, as a virtual sea of humanity swirled around us in a loud, busy flow. At the table beside us, coworkers boisterously toasted a promotion. Television sets broadcasting various sports games, which were being responded to vociferously by tipsy patrons, added to the cacophony.
Despite the fact that the weather had just taken its first real chilly turn of the year outside, the air inside Pequod’s was thick and warm. I was reminded of the episode of “The Office” where Michael and Dwight show up in New York City to surprise Ryan at a nightclub.
I took a bite of my loaded veggie pizza, and cocked my head to one side as I chewed. My friend The Maestro wasn’t wrong; it was a bit like Pizzeria Uno’s, with its tough, toasty crust and chewy globs of cheese. I, however, considered such a comparison a compliment; because, well, I like Pizzeria Uno.
“I think it’s good,” I replied, in the semi-shout one needed to employ in order to be heard over the Friday night revelry at Pequod’s. “Like, every flavor pops.” And every flavor did pop, too. While it’s true that biting into Pequod’s deep dish pizza is primarily like biting into, say, a loaf of Italian bread that happens to include some toppings (that is, the thick crust is definitely the defining experience of the pizza), the toppings that had been piled on were crunchy, chewy, and bright with flavor. The onions were very onion-y. The black olives very olive-ey. The green peppers very pepper-y.
“I don’t know why I ordered deep dish pizza,” the Maestro lamented. “I hate deep dish pizza.”
For a moment, I thought about going into a Freudian-flavored analysis of why we chase after certain experiences that we know, or at least highly suspect, will be unsatisfying or painful. Why we do things we know we’re highly likely to regret. Freud talked about this stuff, you know. No other theorist talked quite a much about self-sabotage as ol’ Sigmund.
But, I decided, as I took another too-big bite of slightly too-hot veggie pizza, that probably wasn’t the discussion to get into tonight. The Maestro has an issue he’s working through by ordering deep dish pizza, I reasoned; it’s not my place to get in the way of the psychoanalytic dance he’s doing with the ghost of Pizzeria Uno.
Pequod’s was all right. I mean, I’m not a very demanding pizza adventurer. If there’s any one thing I emphatically want from my pizza, is that it be unapologetically what it is. What I mean by that is, I don’t want to have to make excuses for my pizza. A good example of unapologetic pizza is, say, Cuzzo’s, the “3AM pizza” we had last summer. That’s pizza that knows its limitations; it’s not pretentious, not trying to be something it’s not. I find some of the more gourmet-ish pizzas we have to be kind of the opposite: they’re staking a claim to being somehow more evolved than just, like, pizza, when all they are is limp-crusted, exactly-as-good-as-it-is pizza. Pequod’s doesn’t have that problem, I found: it was exactly as it advertised itself to be. Casserole-like, deep dish pizza. A reliable thrust of bright, salty flavor in every bite, anchored to what seemed like a goddamn bread loaf in every bite.
I won’t ever complain about such an experience.
I will, however, complain about the Star Wars prequels. Not in the way you’d expect, though.
See, here’s the thing: Star Wars, Episodes I (“The Phantom Menace,”), II (“Attack of the Clones”), and III (“Revenge of the Sith”) are objectively bad movies. I don’t know anyone who will make a serious argument otherwise.
They’re pretty much bad in every imaginable way.
Writing? Check. (“I am haunted by the kiss you should never have given me?” Is that dialogue from a Star Wars movie, or a lyric from a Backstreet Boys song?)
Acting? Check out Hayden Christensen’s battle to the death with understandable pronunciation, or Natalie Portman’s mysterious disappearing British accent for the win.
Special effects, the supposed only redeeming virtue of the latter day Lucasfilm movies? There isn’t enough suspension of disbelief possible to explain why Obi Wan doesn’t at least flinch when General Grevious ignites four lightsabers right in font of his damn face.
Directing? I hope you’re a fan of shot/reaction shot/someone crosses the room to turn and say something in reply, because THAT’S WHAT WE’VE GOT, YOU LUCKY NERFHERDER!
Yup, the execution of these movies was god awful. God, god awful.
But, you know all of that. Pointing any of that out isn’t terribly interesting.
I’ll tell you what is interesting, though: Star Wars movies kinda trying something different.
(N.B.: “Trying” does not amount to “successfully executing.” But I do truly believe points are deserved, in this case, for trying, insofar as science fiction movies aren’t particularly known for veering away from established tropes all that often.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one to make a spirited defense of the things the prequels tried with such a spectacular lack of success to pull off. But, for example, for Star Wars to try to cozy up to the question of, say, how much of our personal liberty and democratic process are we wiling to sacrifice in the service of national– that is to say, intergalacic– security? That…could have been interesting.
For the same movie franchise who introduced us to the “slave Leia” action figure (RIP) to cozy up to questions of can a young, beautiful female head of state/parliamentary leader be taken seriously in a galaxy protected by an old boys’ club of secretive religious zealots? That…could have been interesting.
What are the long-term psychoemotional ramifications of removing a child from his family of origin early on, immersing him in a Spartan, cult-like atmosphere where emotional attachment and expression are shamed and forbidden? What, you mean he grows up with a severely underdeveloped superego (that part of the psyche that internalizes the voices and values of our parents, for better or worse) and an inclination to attach to the first authority figure that shows him a shred of empathy? Huh. That…could have been interesting to explore a little more.
See, to me, the prequels aren’t just frustrating because they’re bad movies. They’re frustrating because they could have explored such rich, interesting territory. For example, in “The Phantom Menace,” Obi Wan watches his mentor, Qui Gon Jinn, murdered right in front of him. In response, Obi Wan loses his goddamn MIND and slices Darth Maul in half, thus destroying any possibility of the Jedi interrogating him and learning anything about the reemergent Sith order. This was a serious, if momentary, pivot toward the Dark Side for young Obi Wan, one that cost the Jedi valuable information about a serious threat; but it’s never explored. We’re just kind of left with the notion that the Jedi were cool with Obi Wan having bifurcated Darth Maul, because, you know, heat of battle, whatcha gonna do, am I right?
Obi Wan wrestling with the PTSD of seeing Qui Gon killed, and having become a murderer himself in the subsequent moments, say it with me, class…could have been interesting.
Then, there’s Jar Jar. Talk about a missed opportunity.
Now, now. Stay with me, here. I’m not even going to rehash the “Jar Jar Sith Theory.” I don’t think Jar Jar was a secret Sith; but I do think he was a tremendous missed opportunity.
Why? Because, dear friends, Star Wars is nothing if not mythological in its style of storytelling. The original trilogy, in particular, is packed with Jungian archetypes; so much so that, famously, university professors have used its characters and plot lines to elucidate classic storytelling tropes. And the thing that is most essential to classic, mythologically-informed storytelling is your basic, character-drive story arc. (The prototypical examples of such arcs are from the original Triology: Luke going from naive, impulsive farm boy to wizened, mindful Jedi, and Han going from mercenary scoundrel to self-sacrificing Rebel general).
As we all know, Jar Jar starts out in “The Phantom Menace” as a loathsome character. Irritating. Kinda racist. Not funny enough to be comic relief; too gangly and odd to really be endearing to kids, at least in the Chewbacca/ewok tradition; and too cartoonish to be taken seriously in the closing battles of Episode I. Jar Jar draws what professional wrestling fans know as “X-Pac heat;” that is, he’s a character that is hated not in the love-to-hate-him way a successful villain is hated, but rather in a “we really don’t want to see this character on our movie screens anymore, even to get his comeuppance” kind of way.
I don’t think that’s what Lucas was trying to create with Jar Jar, mind you. I think he was genuinely surprised by all the X-Pac heat Jar Jar engendered upon the release of Episode I. I think this fact is reflected in the increasingly small amount of screen time afforded Jar Jar in Episode II and III; “less Jar Jar,” in fact, seemed to be the only message Lucas actually heard from his fanbase as the prequel trilogy slogged on.
But what an opportunity for a redeeming character arc.
Imagine if George actually took seriously the challenge of creating a serious character out of Jar Jar, after the massive misfire of Episode I?
Let us not forget that the first Star Wars character to generate X-Pac Heat, way back in the day, was a whiny little farm boy named Luke Skywalker.
It’s easy to retcon Luke’s cool factor in light of the character he eventually became, but let’s face it: Luke Skywalker did not start out as a character that was fun to watch. For example: even at the end of “A New Hope,” we’re get Luke sobbing to Leia about how he just lost his mentor of, you know, the last few days.
Pause for a moment and process that: Leia, who has just had her WHOLE FUCKING PLANET DESTROYED AND FAMILY KILLED.
Luke was not a likable character. He was kind of a whiny douche with massive, massive gaps in self-awareness.
But he became a likable, respectable, and finally essential character, because we see him wrestle with the traits that made him so unlikeable and immature throughout his Jedi training in “Empire.” When you look at his whole character arc in context, it’s really a massive storytelling feat Lucas pulled off with Luke: he took a whiny, genuinely unlikeable character and turned him into the prototypical hero of hero’s journey archetype fame.
Now, do I think he could have done the same for Jar Jar Binks?
Well, no. All I’m saying is that Jar Jar’s initial presentation had opened up all kinds of opportunities. He could have been developed into a serious character, a’la Luke. Or, try this on for size: he could have been brutally, gruesomely killed by Anakin, maybe even before Ani’s full-on fall to the Dark Side, and made into a martyr, or a signpost along Anakin’s journey to Darth Vader-dom. That would have both generated some sympathy for Jar Jar, and have provided the young Vader with some street cred: Jar Jar was annoying, yes, but he was also demonstrably helpless and hapless. Would have have deserved to be filleted, just because Anakin never discovered Dialectical Behavior Therapy?
Missed opportunities, is all I’m saying.
Anyway. I don’t hate the prequels for what they are. I hate them for what they could have been. For what they almost, almost were.
Anyway. Pequod’s was pretty good. The Maestro’s Freudian repetition compulsion psychological defenses notwithstanding.