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Downfalls - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Downfalls
Tonight -- yesterday, technically -- Skylar insisted that we keep our promise to take her to see the Star Wars movie during our vacation. She loved it, even though she had to stay up past her bedtime. I had a good time too, despite the fact that it wore a little thin in places on third viewing. Compensating for my excessive familiarity with the film was the fact that I've started reading The Phantom Menace to the Bean during our trip. I haven't watched Episode I or Episode II since they were in theaters. But the sense I had watching them that they would seem profoundly tragic in retrospect was confirmed indirectly while I was telling Skylar about nine-year-old Annikin's life on Tatooine. When she announced to me, during yesterday's father-daughter time at Legoland, that she was in the mood for a "ruby bliel," it nearly broke my heart. And that was before I saw Episode III again.

Kim emerged from the tent around 10:30pm to tell me her analysis of the film, which is that it's just like the scenarios boys like to act out when they play pretend. "Of course," I replied, "all the Star Wars movies are that way." But that's what makes Annikin's story so strangely compelling to me. It contains all the war games of the previous five films, but manages to turn them all into something else at the same time. I've already made this point, I realize, yet it's one worth making again and again. Recognizing that fate is not always reliable -- Annikin wasn't the "chosen one" after all, at least in a literal sense -- is a powerful insight. Understanding that the best intentions can lead to the worst results is richer still.

Right now, my thoughts on Episode III keep converging with my thoughts on the film Downfall, which happens to be playing at the theater in downtown Enicinitas. Downfall is a far better film from a cinéphile's standpoint. The acting is superb instead of wooden. Subtleties of plot are magnified, not ironed flat. And the subject matter itself is a lot more grave. What Downfall shares with Episode III, however, as different as the two films are, is the capacity to make viewers identify with the dark side and then question their willingness to do that afterwards.

I want to write more about Downfall at some point, because it's such an interesting picture to think about from a film-theoretical perspective. By obeying all the conventions of the two genres it merges, historical epic and biopic, and taking care to meet all the criteria of the traditional well-made film -- there's nothing avant-garde about it, formally speaking -- Downfall manages to generate a negative alienation effect. Because it goes out of its way not to disrupt the workings of the classic cinematic apparatus, the film encourages viewers to equate their own complicity with those workings with the complicity of its main protagonist, Hitler's "innocent" secretary.

Episode III is far less clever on the surface. Yet it also manages to bring about a classic form of cinematic identification, the precise sort Brecht railed against, that subverts the identifications that the first three Star Wars films, not to mention Episode I and Episode II provoked. Even young viewers seem to recognize the strangeness of this effect, as far as I can tell based on audience responses I've witnessed. Skylar certainly does.

Of course, the Bean has, in her inimitable way, taken deep thinking about Star Wars to a new level. Not only has she spotted "continuity editing" problems in the relationship between the book version of The Phantom Menace and Episode III, she has also managed to out-ponder Yoda. On the drive back from the film, I told her that I liked the fact that even the Jedi were undone by pride, both when Mace Windu decides to take the law into his own hands and when Yoda deludes himself into believing that the time is ripe for him to dethrone Darth Sidious on his own. She responded that this was proof that even the Sith lord was not wholly bad.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "You can only fail," she answered, "if someone makes you fail. When Darth Sidious makes Yoda fail, he teaches him not to have too much pride. Yoda wouldn't get that important lesson by himself. So Darth Sidious is actually Yoda's teacher. He has to have a little bit of the good side of the Force in him to do that." While this is not a conclusion that the Jedi would necessarily be able to embrace, it has a definite logic to it. Whether it would be possible to extend it to the case of Hitler, though, is another matter. I'll have to ask Skylar when she's older.

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