Now that The Last Jedi is on Netflix, it’s easier to scrutinize and understand all the ways in which the director, Rian Johnson, reimagined what a Star Wars film could be. The plot twists—Leia Poppins and all that—received plenty of attention, positive and negative, when the movie made its box-office splash at the end of 2017. But with each viewing, I catch camera angles, lines of dialogue, and performance choices that, in subtle and overt ways, depart from expectations established over the previous 40 years of franchise films. It is likely these aesthetic leaps, as much as the twistiness of the story, that made it such a divisive work, horrifying traditionalist fans while thrilling critics who’ve long wanted blockbusters to be more progressive, in every sense of the word.
I was thinking of The Last Jedi, oddly enough, while taking in some experimental music at the Aspen Ideas Festival (which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic ) on Thursday. Mark Applebaum, a decorated Stanford University professor of music composition and theory, opened his heady and playful talk about tradition versus progress with a piano improvisation of a tune, “Buffalo Wings,” that he’d written. His performance made for an electrifying crescendo of complexity, but afterward, he pointed out all the ways his “invention” relied on things that had come before. Others had dreamed up the piano, diatonic tonality, and the 12-bar blues riff. Which meant for Applebaum, a lot of jazz improv is itself traditional or any of the synonyms that word might take: conservative, conventional, customary.