Star Wars And the Rule of Cool

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Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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  1. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    Let me just preface this by saying I really really really really really really loved this piece. It made me smile about 500 times and it’s great. I agree overall with the point you’re making.

    That having been said I would add one minor quibble and a major one.

    The minor one is this – I always took the clumsiness of the Empire’s methods to be associated with a technologically advanced and overwhelmingly-forced well established government ruling over a lot of fairly primitive star systems. You can see what I mean in The Mandalorian when they send the At-At to attack the farmers. I felt like the Empire could get away with having some clumsy technology because most of the people they were ruling over didn’t have as much or any tech, and it was the EMPIRE, no one stood up to them because if you did, they send an overwhelming force to make you toe the line (this was sadly undone to a rather ridiculous extent in the sequels by finding out all this Empire stuff had happened over the course of what – 20 years? but I digress) I figured the Empire was like the Germans in WWII, they invested vast sums of money in technology that didn’t work well in the field but it didn’t matter, they were still able to conquer countries who were running their armies like it was 1885. Big nation states are always making terrible technology that costs huge sums of money and sucks and they get away with it because they’re big nation states. So that never really ended up being in the realm of disbelief for me.

    My major quibble is this (and I’m not sure this even IS a quibble really, because you’re saying that if you like the movie, you’ll suspend disbelief for it, and I’m really talking about bad movies here) – the Rule of Cool breaks completely apart in modern movies. For instance I saw this movie called “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” which had several pretty amazing action sequences, and yet, still sucked. The rebooted Star Trek movies are the same – some of the stuff in them I absolutely love, but the whole is so much less than the sum of their parts that it’s kinda infuriating. Some movies even seem to be ruined by the addition of “cool” where it basically beats you over the head with it like the Hobbit reboots. Cool is not enough to carry a movie, and I get that’s not even what you’re saying but I just felt the burning need to flesh out the point, LOL.

    I feel like a lot of screenwriters approach moviemaking with this idea of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” such and such happened. “Wouldn’t it be cool if King Kong fought a bunch of dinosaurs?” “Wouldn’t it be cool if Kirk and Khan had to base jump from ship to ship?” “Wouldn’t it be cool if we livened up that scene where Bilbo and the dwarves escape in the barrels?” Then they proceed to string together a series of cool events on the flimsiest of pretenses, at the expense of storytelling and characterization, and it makes it so you don’t even really care about what happens on the screen.Report

  2. Avatar DensityDuck
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    Other people have mentioned this, and I agree: One of the biggest mistakes of “Rogue One” and “Solo” was to try to explain things. Why the Death Star had a hole leading directly to the self-destruct button. Why Han Solo was named “Solo” and how exactly doing the Kessel Run in parsecs meant the Millennium Falcon was fast.

    The more you do to try to explain the previous cool stuff, the less time you can spend on making other stuff that looks cool.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to DensityDuck
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      Even not just the previous cool stuff, but the current cool stuff. The first part of Pacific Rim, for example, has a pretty tedious and unnecessary (I think it was even voice over) explanation of how the bonding with the robots worked, and it just did not need to be there. It detracted from me getting into the world.

      I didn’t hate Solo but I did cringe mightily when he “got his name.” That was UGH.Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to DensityDuck
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      The most recent and IMO offensive example of this is Prometheus/Alien Covenant.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    I’m so old that I’m still surprised that nerd culture has erupted so big in the West in recent years. Nerd culture was still nearly an underground thing and definitely amateurish when I was in high school, college, and law school during the late 1990s and early aughts. I remember people in my college’s anime club, including myself at the time, being rather jealous of Japan’s thriving otaku culture with its’ nearly professional quality doujinshi and all sorts of commercial goodies available outside the canon material. They even had places in cities like Tokyo were you could cosplay at least one day a week in public. In contrast, Western fans had fan fiction of dubious legality and flick songs.

    Japanese media corporations and publishing houses realized that they can commercialize Japanese fandom really early on and earn serious money from it. Their American and European equivalents seemed a lot less into doing this until sometime between 2000 and 2010. Its not like they didn’t use fans to make money but they didn’t cultivate and patronize the fan community the.way the Japanese companies did.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to LeeEsq
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      I too am still wowed and amazed by it. I remember longing for Hello Kitty merch as a child (which was only available in a small section in the very back of Hallmark) and now as a 50 year old woman I can basically get anything with Kitty on it. Let alone Star Wars/Star Trek, which was even in my adulthood seen as uncool. Bizarre.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird
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    When it comes to The Force, how did they describe it in Episode 4?

    “Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

    Holy cow. That’s great. You don’t even notice that he’s begging the question in the first sentence. The second sentence… all living things… okay, so that gives us some rules right there. Wookies might tap into The Force. Droids can’t. Okay. Fair enough. It surrounds us and penetrates us… and it binds the galaxy together. Well, there weren’t always living things were there? You know what? It doesn’t matter.

    I’m on board.

    What did they do with Episode 1?

    Qui-gon says that they need a urine and stool sample to test for The Force. Obi-Wan says “I’m in a hurry, can I just leave my underwear?”

    Everyone in the theater audibly sighed when they talked about Midichlorians. I just sighed right now remembering them.Report

    • Avatar Michael Siegel in reply to Jaybird
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      Yeah, they dropped the midichlorians like a 300 pound maggot the second they could. It was an example of how you don’t need to explain the Force. You make it cool enough and engaging enough and we won’t care.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Jaybird
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      To this day, I can’t say whether it was the midicholorians or Jar Jar that told me, “these prequels aren’t for me.”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gabriel conroy
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        The movie A History of Violence has a great scene where assassins fail to kill the protagonist despite having been set up to succeed by the antagonist.

        Set up quite well, by the antagonist’s lights.

        Anyway, after the initial carnage, the antagonist walks up to one of the not-quite-yet-dead assassins and asks “How do you (eff) that up?” and then, a second time, “HOW DO YOU (eff) THAT *UP*???”

        That’s how I felt after Episode 1.

        The movie I had been looking forward to since discussing it on the playground in the 80’s. The movie that I heard how Lucas said it’d be 20 years before he’d have the technology that would allow him to make it and how that was an unthinkable amount of time in the future.

        How do you (eff) that up?Report

  5. Avatar Aaron David
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    Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it. And so we can accept it when characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is approaching, when whores weep at the sound of “La Marseillaise.” When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.

    -Umberto Eco

    I saw the Star Wars movies as a kid, when they came out. And, in my late twenties, when episode 1 came out I had a chance to see it the night before general release. I walked out halfway through. That movie destroyed any bit of nostalgia for the films I had. And those films were a major bit of my childhood. Some can go back home, othes cannot.Report

  6. Avatar Damon
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    “Everything in the Star Wars universe is ridiculous, impractical and overblown.” I agree. EVERY space show that I can recall has spaceships that maneuver like conventional jets in atmosphere. I noticed it in star wars but I didn’t care.

    I will say this. “There are many criticisms one can level at the sequels. They are often derivative of the original series.” DERIVATIVE? The first of the most recent movies was a crappy copy of the original star wars. I sat in the theatre and thought to myself, “I paid money to see this and MORE money to see it in 3 D?…waste of money.”

    And the SW nerds have ruined Skellig Micheal tourism. I’ll never get to see it. Bastards.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Damon
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      One of the true joys of Babylon Five is that the space ships moved like ships in space would. Pitching and yawing in place, then firing mains to change trajectory. There are some sequences with “fighters” doing this all over the screen. It’s visually primitive – low res CGI – but still wonderful to me.

      At the same time, the whole “WWII fighters” thing looks very cool and interesting, and understandable.Report

  7. Avatar George Turner
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    The flaws are strong with this franchise.

    Creatively, a sci-fi or fantasy author has the additional burden of world building instead of relying on a known one, which is what’s done for a period or contemporary work. Sometimes an author has to build a special sub-world for a contemporary piece, such as in the Bond or John Wick franchises or the “Person of Interest” series, and we buy into over-the-top villain, a guild of assassins, or rogue AI’s that watch everything.

    But the world’s need a consistent set of rules, even if the details are fleshed out as the work unfolds, or as evolving societies and tech change the situation, which can also be the heart of the story (how a society reacts to new pressures and new developments, aka “Star Trek”). This perhaps works so well because every one of us was born into a fabulously complex and crazy world, and even children can explain what you can and can’t do with all the amazing things in our modern lives. Julius Caesar would have no idea why you can’t put kitty in the microwave, but our kids know why. They know lots of things he didn’t because they absorbed the rules of our modern world, where taking an mini-van ride to the airport to fly across a continent to see Mickey Mouse makes perfect sense.

    There are elements of Star Wars that make perfect sense in this light. Of course they’re going to have land speeders. Of course they’ll probably race them. Of course they’ll have starships and laser weapons and body armor. Of course they’ll have a dive bar full of aliens and smugglers. In this regard, Star Wars was far superior to Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Stargate SG-1, whose limited sets and budgets didn’t let them really flesh out most of the planets they visited. On those shows, almost the planets that even have an outdoors look like tiny spots in Southern California, British Columbia, or Great Britain. Tattooine, Hoth, and Endor are not in the budget, much less Coruscant or Naboo. Lucas’s visual imagination won hands down on that one.

    One of Lucas’s fundamental decisions was his decision that space combat would look like WW-II fighter and naval combat. From a scientific standpoint, that’s a horribly wrong answer, but from a filmmaking decision is was a good one because unlike folks prior to WW-I, we all know the “world rules” of 20th century aerial and naval combat because we’ve already seen it. Fox Movietone News already did that part of Lucas’s world building for him.

    We’d also seen Star Trek and other sci-fi, most of which has to imagine a solution to the problem that stars are far apart, so “lightspeed” is just another version of “warp” or “hyperspace”. And Star Trek had already added deflector shields. Shields are an important “cheat{ in a show where a ship is frequently engaging in combat. Accumulating battle scars wouldn’t work with the episodic nature of Star Trek, and it means the model shop doesn’t have to keep modifying the ship. But the deflector shield cheat also kills a lot of the drama and action. The Expanse with shields would be cheesy. On that show everybody is putting on space suits and strapping in because hypervelocity projectiles are going to punch holes in their thin aluminum hull. After a battle they have to fix their ship so it holds air again. That’s way better than having a console explode into sparks as a helmsmen hollers “Shields are down to 35%!”

    Taking such a world and inserting a fantasy plot from a David Campbell hero’s journey, with magic powers and laser swords, was a leap that few people would have made, but Lucas pulled that off, too. But you could argue that many of Lucas’s other major decisions were bad, added as elements because they’d look visually stunning instead of making logical sense. This problem grew worse over time, and began to undermine the understanding of the world rules that the audience had naturally formed. This became a glaring problem in the sequels. The prequels were mostly hampered by Lucas not being good at crafting stories and having a poor feel for an audience’s emotional journey, moment by moment, and being surrounded by equally untalented yes men.

    There was great hope that in someone else’s hands, Star Wars could become transcendent, fulfilling its potential. Sadly, we don’t live in that universe, either.Report

  8. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    I found The Rise of Skywalker disappointing, in part because they chickened out on where the plot was going – a new way to understand and embody The Force that avoided a dualistic, manichaean existence.

    AND, I think the lightsaber duel on the wreckage of the Death Star in the ocean of Endor to be one of the most beautiful, moving pieces of film I’ve ever seen.

    And the use of vital transfer that Ben uses to save Rae? It was perfect. It was played and shot as well as it is possible to humanly do.Report

  9. Avatar Urusigh
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    I think you’re rather missing a key element of suspension of disbelief as it relates to rule of cool: plausible logic. A thing doesn’t actually need to work in reality, but it does need to be the sort of thing that a motivated fan can easily come up with a plausible reason that at least sounds like it might be true. For example:

    “There is no way this could ever work. Anyone who looks out a window will notice the big spaceship. A tie fighter on combat patrol would notice it. Hell, half the fleet probably saw it stop, reverse and land.”

    1) It clearly did work, 2) unsurprisingly heavily armored spaceships do not HAVE many windows for incoming fire to hit end expose the internals to vacuum, 3) have you even played Tie Fighter, the sensors suck and visual on anything beyond spitting distance is terrible, space is FULL of tiny off-white objects in the far distance, and 4) How? I already covered that the sensors suck and visuals were worse, not to mention that the MF is a smuggler’s vessel and avoiding capture is kinda Han’s specialty.

    “From there, we go to the gas mines of Bespin. What’s a gas mine? Why is it in the clouds? Why exactly does it have a city filled with civilians instead of a bunch of droids mining gas?”

    1) To mine gas, obviously, 2) a place to extract a natural resource (gas), 3) because that’s where the gas naturally occurs, and 4) because the spin-sealed gas is an essential component in military grade starship energy weapons and nobody trusts re-programmable droids to handle a critical (and inherently explosive) part of their national security supply chain.

    “Which is funny if you take a step back because lightsabers are, without question, one of the fundamentally dumbest weapons in all of film….If lightsabers were real, every single Jedi would be covered in burn marks and/or missing limbs.”

    Counter-point: A sword is the single most effective melee weapon for killing other armed humans in the history of humanity. A sword that is both lightweight and yet still quite capable of cutting through practically any armor (or fortification for that matter) is in fact quite possibly the theoretical optimal melee weapon. 2) Training sabers are the rough equivalent to a nerf bat, injury potential is nonexistent, and full-trained Jedi can perfectly block near-lightspeed projectiles with flawless precision, likewise Jedi training begins at childhood and is an all-day every day matter, not remotely comparable to “recreational fencing”, so “Strong with the Force” is sufficient explanation for something as simple as not hitting yourself, but it isn’t even required given the sheer disparity in training hours involved.

    See? You might not agree with any of that, but it’s easy enough to come up with something off the cuff that could stand up to some debate. THAT is key to Rule of Cool.

    Anyway, great article, really enjoyed it. Thanks! 😀Report

    • Avatar CJColucci in reply to Urusigh
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      I never begrudged sci-fi or superhero “one miracle exceptions,” but I always insisted on plausibility within the terms of the miracle exception. My pet peeve was the Six Million Dollar Man. I’ll accept bionics, but an arm, a leg, and an eye? (I’ll leave out what every dirty-minded adolescent male, if that’s not a redundancy, was thinking.) I’ll buy that Steve could be strong enough to, say, throw a car, but even with a bionic arm and leg, his spine would snap. Why not build him right, within the conventions of fictional bionic technology? Or Thor’s power of flight. It’s actually physically possible (though not for someone with normal human power and normally-constructed human shoulders) to spin a hammer fast enough and, with a well-timed jump, hurtle through the air. But once off the ground, Thor and his hammer are simple projectiles, like the Incredible Hulk, and they can’t maneuver like, say, Superman. By the way, how does Superman’s power to fly work? He’s not Iron Man with jets (hey, dirty-minded adolescent male, shut up!) or Hawkman or Angel with wings — don’t get me started on how no vertebrate had wings growing out of its shoulder blades instead of arms turning into wings, or Jean Grey levitating with psychokinetic powers. So what, mechanically, is Superman doing when he flies?Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Urusigh
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      Lucas threw in lightsabers, along with quickly showing that they could deflect blaster fire, otherwise you’d have the same situation as Raiders of the Lost Ark and a quick reminder why nobody uses swords anymore. They don’t survive in a world of rapid fire projectile weapons.

      But the logic, mechanics, or physics behind it is very flimsy, and although the audience is willing to suspend disbelief because the story is cool, it’s not wise to test the boundaries of the logic or the plot device won’t hold up. The prequels screwed up by trying to add more to a structure that could barely stand up on its own. What if lightsabers could saw through steel doors? What if someone used two lightsabers? What is someone used twenty spinning lightsabers? What if a clone trooper could somehow elude the force and just blast Jedis like shooting womp rats? What if someone has a six barreled gun? What if they came in purple? Lightsabers went from an elegant weapons from a more civilized age (the original trilogy) to a cheesy comic book plot device. Along with that, the Force morphed from tapping into a higher plane of existence, which was awe inspiring, to a simple yeast infection.Report

      • Avatar Urusigh in reply to George Turner
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        “Lucas threw in lightsabers, along with quickly showing that they could deflect blaster fire, otherwise you’d have the same situation as Raiders of the Lost Ark and a quick reminder why nobody uses swords anymore. They don’t survive in a world of rapid fire projectile weapons.”

        This is not entirely a fair summation of the state of melee weapons in regards to rfpg, Star Wars fights frequently take place in precisely the two circumstances where firearms are most limited: close quarters (corridors, tunnels, etc) and places where stray fire is seriously undesirable (on ship in space, around delicate electronics like control panels and power/engine rooms. So there’s a very good reason to have a dedicated close-quarters weapon, particularly one that doubles as a door-breaching tool. If we had lightsabers right now, you can bet that your average U.S. marine would carry one in his kit just for the sheer utility it provides (if not have it mounted in the bayonet slot on his rifle). I wouldn’t be a primary weapon for anyone who can’t block blaster shots with it, but it would still be a very practical weapon for anyone who fights CQB more often than open field.

        There are a number of scifi settings that actually make fairly good cases for the continued relevance of melee weaponry (even without pseudo-psychics), though it is dependent on typical combat locations and the given balance between armor and ranged weapon technology (i.e. The Mandolarian has a similar effective range with his wrist-flamer and that sees plenty of use; he’d be similarly effective with a lightsaber even without the Force as his armor replaces the need to deflect blaster shots). It’s much the same reason the military still teaches combatives: even with guns that hit 300m easy, fights still get into fist-to-face often enough for it to be worthwhile to prepare for it.Report

  10. Avatar Kazzy
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    The Fast and the Furious franchise is a great example of The Rule of Cool.

    I don’t like super hero movies. I love the F&F movies. Someone pointed out they’re basically super hero movies without acknowledging self. They’re right. But they’re cool. So I still love them.Report

  11. Avatar DensityDuck
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    A rewrite/edit of a discussion I found on Twitter…

    “my longtime contention has been that star wars was never meant to be a sci-fi movie: there’s too much tedious peripheral shit in this goofy non-euclidean universe to be Proper Science Fiction at all. I think it was OK as a movie, but it was never meant to be anyone else’s thing than George Lucas’s. He had a story he wanted to tell made of cool bits of other stories, and he did, and he never figured about what other people might do with *his* stories. That’s why the stuff people try to worldbuild using Star Wars doesn’t make any sense, because the original was never supposed to make sense. And to be fair, if you were watching those old WWII dogfight movies and trying to back out the world from that, you’d get a pretty strange result as well, like, why do so many dudes all over the world look like John Wayne? Did humans develop cloning technology before atomic power and microcircuitry?”Report

  12. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Lucas showed that you could make pretty good, incredibly successful movies substituting gosh-wow visuals and appealing characters for plot, logic, and dialogue. In the sequels, he showed that without appealing characters you lose “pretty good” but not “incredibly successful”.Report

  13. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    There’s a YouTube video out there where a guy discusses how practical fencing with a lightsaber would look nothing like the duels in SW, and it would not be very exciting at all (except for deflecting blaster fire).Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      All theatrical fencing, regardless of type of blade, is unrealistic. Just to pick one aspect, to make the fighting both fit in and fill the visual frame the director wants, the participants have to be much too close together. I suspect this is true for all one-on-one combat, except in small confined areas and with a whole bunch of rules so the fighters can’t hurt each other too badly. Lightsaber distance is likely to be particularly long, since first touch is always going to win.Report

      • Avatar Michael Siegel in reply to Michael Cain
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        Yeah, that surprised me when I was fencing. Closing in makes you vulnerable.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Siegel
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          says:

          Same for Kendo, if you are closing in, you had best be moving through with a decisive strike, or you are done if your opponent is even somewhat on the ball.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Michael Siegel
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          Fencing against someone who understands (and uses) distance is a much more frustrating undertaking.Report

          • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Michael Cain
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            This discussion reminds me of Lincoln’s terms for his duel (as was his right as the challenged party): (1) the largest cavalry broadswords of identical size that can be found; and (2) each combatant to remain within his own adjoining rectangular box, drawn to a depth of the length of a broadsword plus three feet. Anybody leaving their box forfeited.

            Lincoln’s adversary was a military man with sword-training, but cavalry broadswords are heavy, hacking weapons. Given Lincoln’s height and long arms, he believed after a month’s practice that he could knock the sword out of his opponent’s hands without hurting anyone including himself.Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to PD Shaw
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              A few years ago I had an elderly coach, who had had an elderly coach in college, who had fenced a duel in Italy in the 1930s. My coach had inherited the little news clipping from the paper in Rome mentioning it. Here’s the story my coach told.

              The American had recently graduated from college and was doing one of those “visit the continent” summers. At a bar he had gestured broadly and spilled an Italian colonel’s drink. He apologized profusely and replaced the drink. That night the colonel apparently decided that he was still offended and sent someone around to the American’s hostel room to issue the challenge. Not knowing what to do, the American accepted and chose epees, which he was used to from college. They faced off on a tennis court outside Rome proper — duels were illegal in Rome — the next morning near dawn, each with an epee with the safety tip ground to a point. (I once saw a broken epee blade slide through someone’s calf slick as a whistle; a sharpened epee is a lot sharper than a broken blade; I am much more nervous about broken blades than I was before seeing that accident.) The American realized he was by far the better fencer, worked distance, and then scratched the Italian across his weapon forearm. The seconds and attending doctor rushed to stop things, bind the scratch, and the whole lot spent the rest of the day bar-hopping.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      The thing I always figured about lightsabers is that they’re a lot more useful when you can actually see the future. Like, “if I swing my lightsaber like this I’ll chop off my own head, so, better not do that.”

      There’s a bit in the movie “Hero”, done effectively there but cribbed from any number of fencing/fighting stories, where two combatants are standing and facing each other, not moving; the movie keeps cutting to black-and-white footage of them furiously doing martial arts at each other, the idea being that they’re planning out the fight in their heads; “I’m gonna try to kick him and he’s gonna dodge, so I’ll punch up, but he’ll have figured that and already have his hands up to block, so I’ll jump to the side, and he’ll be trying to kick me so I have to duck…” The chess-master idea that you play the whole game out in your head, and whoever is better at doing that will win. And that’s basically how Jedi lightsaber fighting works; whoever can see the future far enough and fast enough wins the fight.Report

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