So, wanna talk some more about Star Wars? I know I already wrote about it, and not too long ago. But then I was talking about religion and animism and stuff. This time, I wanna talk about detective fiction.
Specifically, I’d like to talk about Rian Johnson, hardboiled detective fiction, and the belief getting passed around online that all of the plots in The Last Jedi are “failures.”
First, now, that’s clearly not true. Rey’s story is a fairly standard hero’s story in a lot of ways. She’s a powerful Force user by the end of the film, after she became the teacher for a brief moment, teaching Luke the last lesson he needed to learn.
A touch I really like in Luke’s character, by the way, is that he always seems able to learn something new and adapt to a new way of being. He is different in every single movie, after all.
Anyway. Did you know the first film Rian Johnson directed is Brick? It’s amazing (note: my partner hates it). I teach it every semester, alongside Poe, Doyle, and Chandler. It’s a hardboiled detective film, but set in a high school. It’s actually an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, with something else as the Macguffin. So Johnson made this movie, years passed, I guess he did some other films (I’m joking; before TLJ he was probably most famous for Looper), and then he did a Star Wars movie.
And here’s what I want to tell you: it is very important to understand the tropes of hardboiled fiction to understand TLJ. Specifically, all the plots that seem like “failures,” like they “don’t go anywhere,” those are hardboiled plots.
Now, I know plenty of people have already explained these plots. The most obvious one, of course, is that people don’t succeed all the time. If people are in a poorly-funded rebellion against space Nazis, they should definitely not always do well. Particularly not if The Force is not with them. But these plots are more than that. They are for a hero’s story – just not Joseph Campbell’s story.
Aside: I think Joseph Campbell gets a bad rap. Mostly, people don’t like how he flattens cultural differences in his major works, like Hero with a Thousand Faces. I understand that, and agree to some extent. However, I also think people tend to think everything they read is “take it or leave it.” That is to say, if someone did something wrong in their work, we just ignore or vilify the entire work. And that’s, uh, bad.
Campbell’s hero narrative was very important to Star Wars. Lucas used it to help structure the original trilogy. So what I mean when I say TLJ has a different hero’s story in it is that it does not universally follow Campbell’s structure.
Rey, by the way, absolutely does.
Finn, Rose, and Poe are all hardboiled detectives, not myth heroes. This is not a startling secret. At one point, looking at the glittering lights of the city she and Finn have come to, looking for a hacker, she says “I want to put my fist through this beautiful city.” If you’ve read a lick of Chandler or of Hammett you recognize the cadence.
Allow me the pleasure of quoting Red Harvest, by Dashiel Hammett:
“How do you like our city?”
“I haven’t seen enough of it to know.” That was a lie. I had.
For forty years old Elihu Wilson … had owned Personville, heart, soul, skin and guts.
I’m just setting out, here, to establish the overt hardboiled nature of TLJ’s multiple plots outside of Rey’s hero journey.
This contextualizes a lot of things, by the way. Mad at Poe’s crank phone call? Listen to Philip Marlowe conduct business on the phone.
And here’s the most important part: you can characterize hardboiled detective fiction by the way it pushes against the traditional English detective story. Actually started by Edgar Allan Poe, the genre was popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle and regimented by Agatha Christie and other English authors. These are the people who made it “against the rules” to write a mystery where the reader can’t figure out the solution before the end. These are the stories that made the catechism of the drawing room accusation.
Chandler and Hammett hated that stuff. At least, their characters do. Marlowe constantly makes fun of book detectives, going so far as to do drawing room accusations that lead nowhere, with no one present except the killer, whom Marlowe never turns in.
The hardboiled detective gets their information in one way: they go from place to place, risk getting busted up, and just keep doing it until they’ve talked to everyone in town. They may go to a fancy club, but not for long. And they may take the servant’s entrance into the homes of their clients, too.
What does all this have to do with TLJ? Well, we’ve established that Rose, Finn, and Poe are these characters. Rose and Finn follow lead after lead, each one turning out bad. Poe thinks he’s the big damn hero, and he’s just another doofus failing to see the big picture (these characters often appear in Chandler’s work; usually they die).
So in the hero’s story, the trials and tribulations lead not only to experience but to awakenings. They suffer and come out of it better than before.
Hardboiled detectives do not do that. They suffer, and they drink, and they suffer some more. Consider this little monologue of Philip Marlowe’s, which is ever so subtle:
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.
Lots of people have written about Finn’s redemption at Rose’s hands. That is what happens. But it happens at the end of a story like this one, where there is no place for knight. Sometimes you get betrayed, like with the hacker. Sometimes you fail, because the enemy is just too big and too damned hard to hurt.
Finn’s life is a detective’s. Something happened to destroy his idealism. He’s bitter that it’s gone, but he can’t replace it with anything else. All that he has left is loyalty. That is Philip Marlowe down to the shoes. A lot of criticism of Chandler’s fiction deals with Marlowe’s apparent tendency to think like a great white knight, and then to discard that idea because it will get him killed. He wants to be chivalrous, even has the impulse to be chivalrous. But he doesn’t do it, because he got burned.
Finn may not be that way now, not after the ending of TLJ. But he was. His belief in the military is gone. His reliance on the Resistance failed, as they nearly failed. His loyalty to Rey nearly got everyone killed, and now he’s carrying around guilt for Rose.
Finn and Rose had to go through a hardboiled story, because that’s the only way the “common person” can encounter the powers above them.
(It’s not literally the only way; I mean in this particular sub-genre thingie we’re discussing).
Here’s what we’re left with: Rose is the kid who grew up in the streets, and knows how terrible things are. She still has hope anyway, because she chose something strong and powerful to be her ideal: love. Finn’s ideal has constantly changed, and he loses his feet each time. He is supposed to choose the same thing Rose has chosen, and may be doing so. But up until now, he’s chosen revenge, cleverness, clobbering the other guy who did this to him.
Allow us to return to Brick:
Throw one at me if you want, hash head.
I’ve got all five senses and I slept
last night, that puts me six up on the
lot of you.
Of course, there’s also this gem of a conversation:
Brain, I can’t let her go. I was set to
but I can’t. I don’t think I can.
You think you can help her?
You think you can get the straight,
maybe break some deserving teeth?
Yeah. I think I could.
That’s really all Finn thought he could do. Rose knows better. But Finn is a product of his world, and that world, in the Empire and the First Order, doesn’t have room for anything but breaking some teeth. He’ll need to get over that, and soon.
It’s significant, of course, that the hardboiled narrative is a man’s story, and the women in TLJ know how to escape it, while the men are perpetuating it. But that’s a story for another time.