Specter of Reason

Philosophy, Film, Music, Politics, etc.

Friday, November 18, 2022

JAZZ 101:1001 ~ An American History

Ask any number of authorities, and you will surely be told that "Livery Stable Blues" was the first jazz music put on record. That was in 1917, by a group of White musicians who called themselves the Original Dixieland Jass Band (soon to be the Original Dixieland Jazz Band). However, others will point out that Wilbur Sweatman, a successful African-American composer and musician, made a few jazz recordings several months earlier, near the end of 1916. Is this controversial?

You can hear two of Sweatman's 1916 recordings ("My Hawaiian Sunshine" and "Down Home Blues") as well as the Dixieland's 1917 recording of "Livery Stable Blues" near the top of my Spotify playlist, "JAZZ 101:1001 ~ An American History (1913/14, 1916-2022)."  That playlist is a newly created history of recorded American jazz. It contains 1,001 songs, ordered chronologically by year, and covering every year from 1916 to 2022. The whole thing is 101 hours long, and not a minute more. (Scroll down for the embedded playlist.)

Sweatman's 1916 recordings are loose and improvisational, and I think they are jazz. It would be unreasonable to insist otherwise. True, they don't share the traditional Dixieland band composition. On the contrary, they reflect an evolution of jazz beyond the New Orleans sound that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was after. In fact, Sweatman was recording in New York City, not anywhere near New Orleans. Sweatman had played music throughout the South, but by the time he put jazz to record in 1916, it had grown beyond its turn-of-the-century origins in New Orleans. It had begun to spread and evolve throughout the nation.

You will notice that Sweatman's songs aren't first on my playlist. Neither is the Dixieland band, of course. Instead, I chose to start with two songs by James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, recorded in New York City in 2013/14. The first one is a performance of Sweatman's "Down Home Blues." The second, "The Castles in Europe" (also known as "Castle House Rag") is an original Jim Europe composition. The name Castle comes from the famous husband-and-wife dance team, Vernon and Irene Castle, who (with Europe's Society Orchestra) stylized and popularised the foxtrot.

In these two early recordings from Europe's Society Orchestra, we can hear African-American musicians combining ragtime with other influences and stretching the music beyond its breaking point. This music speaks of a whirling, ecstatic desire to create a new, swinging form of African-American music that draws on a range of traditions, including ragtime, blues, folk and more, and which embraces the spirit of spontaneity. That sounds a whole lot like jazz to me. These early recordings might not be jazz proper, but they seem to be celebrating jazz, or something very much near it, and in a way never before seen.

Unfortunately, we don't have recordings of the most innovative New Orleans jazz musicians prior to the 1920s. People like Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton wouldn't produce any records until the 1920s. Despite the lack of recordings, I think we can safely say that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was not representative of the state of jazz in 1917. In fact, in 1917, Sidney Bechet and other New Orleans jazz originators were already performing in Chicago. 

You can hear Bechet's first recording, "Wild Cat Blues" (recorded in 1923 with Clarence Williams' Blue Five), on my playlist, too. Only the first 14 songs on my playlist are devoted to pre-1920s jazz. The decade with the most songs is actually the 1960s. You can see the breakdown by decade below.

Year

# of tracks

Specific tracks

1913-1919

14

1-14

1920s

60

15-74

1930s

59

75-133

1940s

80

134-213

1950s

160

214-373

1960s

264

374-637

1970s

139

638-776

1980s

46

777-822

1990s

41

823-863

2000s

59

864-922

2010s

62

923-984

2020-2022

17

985-1001


Here are some other stats that might be of interest:

Most Frequent Artist (leader)

Duke Ellington: 27

John Coltrane: 26

Miles Davis: 25

Herbie Hancock: 18

Charles Mingus: 12

Most Frequent Song

Summertime: 10

Softly As In A Morning Sunrise: 8

St. Louis Blues: 7

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child: 6

Caravan: 5

Most Frequent Vocalist

Billie Holiday: 13

Frank Sinatra: 9

Ella Fitzgerald: 8

Louis Armstrong: 8

Sarah Vaughan: 7


Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong each appear as leader 11 times on the playlist, and Fletcher Henderson has 10 showings.  As for vocalists, Billy Eckstine is barely behind Sarah Vaughan, with six recordings on the list. And for popular songs, both "Lullaby Of The Leaves" and "Take The 'A' Train" make four appearances on the list.

Why did I make such a list? It started off as a way for me to organise my own experience of jazz, and to fill in gaps in my knowledge. My aim was to rewire the way my brain processes music, ultimately to improve my own creative abilities. However, the playlist eventually took on a life of its own. In the end, the playlist has helped me contextualise and broaden my understanding and appreciation of American music and history. Perhaps it can do the same for other people, too.

I abided by strict guidelines.  The playlist had to be exactly 101 hours to the minute and exactly 1,001 songs. Also, I only included recordings with American musicians (though non-Americans occasionally appear as side-musicians and, in one case, as a co-leader). Finally, I only included recordings that are available in both Poland (where I live) and the USA, so I can share the music with my friends and family abroad. That last rule forced me to leave out a number of important recordings and even some artists (such as Naked City). Still, I am happy with the results.

I did not begin with any particular definition of "jazz." I wanted to be as inclusive as possible. Yet, I found myself often questioning what I could or could not reasonably include. 

Any definition of "jazz" is going to have very limited value, because the genre was not born with any clear boundaries. The music preceded the label, and has never been fully captured by it. So, for example, the line between early jazz and early blues is blurry, just as the lines between later jazz and R&B, soul and funk can be elusive. It's easy to embrace the fuzziness with words like "fusion" and phrases that indicate a mixing of genres, like "soul jazz" or "jazz funk." Those labels can be helpful, but they don't answer all the questions. Of course, these aren't questions that the musicians themselves often care much about, and you could say that the whole attempt to create a definitive history of jazz is futile. And yet, I think we can identify certain threads and trends in the history, and the pursuit of them can be infinitely rewarding.

I've tried to respect the musicians as much as possible. I've also tried to include enough variety to indicate the expansive, fluid and evolving nature of jazz as part of the American experience.  

Let me know what you think.


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Review: Wonder Woman 1984 - WITH SPOILERS

I would like to believe that early drafts of "Wonder Woman 1984" were quite good. They were edgy, with some irony and weight, and they had Diana Prince struggling with difficult decisions that any normal person would find insurmountable. In those imagined screenplays, Wonder Woman is an icon of truth, justice and compassion. In the movie we get, however, she is a bit less than all that.

In WW84, Wonder Woman is afraid to make things invisible because she once lost a cup--until Steve comes back and apparently restores her self-confidence. She is apparently a brilliant anthropologist, but thinks she can never understand how airplanes work. She cares for nothing more than to be with her long lost love, and would give up all of her powers to keep him alive, even if it means hijacking a strange man's body (and using that body for her own pleasure and advantage without its owner's consent--aka rape). When she finally renounces her wish, it's not an empowering moment. It's more of a, Finally! What the hell was wrong with her?!

Wonder Woman 1984 one week cume stands at ~$1.35M. Aiming for $2M total  grossing. : boxoffice


On the positive side, I think the cast was solid, given the material. I also think the film has a good point to make about politics in the era of Trump—that con artists peddling wish fulfillment can destroy the world, and that the greatest power against them is the truth—even if the script doesn’t make the point convincingly. (Are "particles" of '80s television broadcasts supposed to be a metaphor for 21st-century Tweets? I wish I could appreciate the poetry.) 

On the negative side, I feel like the filmmakers had a list of ingredients they wanted to fit into the movie, and that was given priority over any concerns about logic or common sense. The resulting mess does not establish a world that I could enjoy or appreciate. It's also surprisingly regressive from a feminist standpoint, as Jeva Lange points out at The Week.

What follows is a list of grievances (in the form of questions), some small, some big. 

The Shopping Mall 

  1. Does the mall robber think that people will let him go if he threatens to drop a girl off a balcony? Is he just insane? 
  2. Why was Wonder Woman on the roof? How did she get there so fast? Was she shopping in the mall already? Why not show us that? Otherwise, why would she be there at all? Was WW tapped into the mall's security system? Later we see that she has screens in her home so she can monitor the city. (This adds some unintentional irony to the Orwellian reference in the film's title. Max Lord may end up threatening people's freedoms with psychological manipulation and lies, but WW is operating a surveillance-based one-person police force in anonymity and outside any kind of democratic justice system.)
  3. Why does WW wink and “shhh” at the little girl she slid into the teddy bears, as if they were sharing a secret? Can’t dozens of other people in the mall see what WW is doing? Is she just gaslighting that poor kid? Does she really not want the little girl to talk about what she saw with anyone? 
  4. Does she always destroy surveillance cameras when she helps people? That’s not very nice. Also, why bother destroying them *after* you’ve swooped in and started helping? If she wants to keep her identity a secret, why not just wear a mask? 
Invisibility and the Jet
  1. How does Steve know how to operate a modern fighter jet?
  2. Did it suddenly become the 4th of July for five minutes? Why is this happening?
  3. And how slow are they flying through those fireworks? Ten miles an hour? Whatever speed, it's far slower than the minimum possible speed of a fighter jet. 
  4. How can they fly a fighter jet from the US to Cairo without refueling multiple times? It’s well over 5,000 miles away.
  5. How does invisibility mean invisible to radar? 
  6. Now that WW has an invisible jet, why doesn’t she want to learn how to fly it? 
  7. Why doesn’t she understand how flying works?
  8. What happens to the jet after they get to Cairo? 
  9. Why doesn’t WW make anything else invisible? 
Diana’s Wish
  1. Why does Steve get a new body? 
  2. Why does Steve get *that* body? 
  3. Why doesn’t anyone recognize the guy who Steve is possessing? Is his identity so unimportant? (How much more interesting would it have been if his identity was important, and if he wasn't so attractive and expendable?) 
  4. Why is it so easy for Diana to believe that the Dreamstone worked and brought Steve back in another man’s body? Wouldn’t it be easier to believe that a strange man was trying to trick her into thinking he’s Steve? Is she so desperate to believe it's really him that she loses all rational sense? 
  5. So WW has sex with a strange man’s body, and without the actual man’s consent. Isn’t that rape? And what if he has a disease? What if she gets pregnant with his child? How is any of this okay? 
Barbara/Cheetah
  1. If Cheetah has all of WW’s powers, how is WW able to electrocute her without electrifying herself? 
  2. Why didn’t Diana offer to walk Barbara home after she was attacked? And why didn’t they call the police on the attacker?
  3. Why would Barbara want to be a human-cat hybrid? Was that her wish?
  4. She had already made her wish to become like Diana, so how does she get another wish? Or did Maxwell trick somebody else into wishing that Barbara had more cat-like powers? Who? When? How? 
Maxwell Lord
  1. Since Alistair wished his dad to be good, why doesn’t he become good?
  2. When Lord wishes to become the Dreamstone, why doesn't he just turn into stone? 
  3. Why does he want to touch millions of people all at once? If he just wants to be healthy, why not take one person’s health at a time? 
  4. If he’s taking life from people all over the world, shouldn’t they be dying? Or at least getting very sick? 
  5. What does all of that life energy give him? He gets healthier, and then what? All he seems to be doing is making things very windy around himself. What's his goal, beyond a vague "more"? 
  6. How is WW able to lasso Lord's foot when, a moment earlier, nothing could get near him? 
  7. How do “television particles” let people watching/hearing the TV actually touch him and, later, touch the lasso? Is TV just magic now? 
  8. How is Lord able to hear and respond to millions of people’s wishes all over the world? 
  9. Why does he renounce his wish? He wants to save his son, but there’s no reason to think renouncing his wish would help him do that. 
  10. When Lord renounces his wish, shouldn’t the Dreamstone materialize? Even if WW doesn’t see it, shouldn’t she assume it has rematerialized somewhere? Doesn’t she need to destroy it to get rid of the danger?
  11. Are we supposed to believe that everyone renounced their wishes? 

Flying and WW’s armor
  1. Can WW fly? She kinda does, but not really. Maybe she could fly really well with those wings, but we never see that, and now the wings are destroyed without ever serving a purpose. 
  2. Why is the new armor in the movie at all? It has no purpose, other than marketing and merchandizing.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Giuliani's theater of the absurd

Thanks to an order from the judge in the case, we can now listen to Giuliani trying to litigate in federal court (for the first time in decades). This is from the Nov. 17 hearing, where he argues against a motion to dismiss Trump's case. If you strip away all the rhetoric about voter fraud and a "little mafia" of Democrats, the question Giuliani needs to answer is, "Why are you before me in this court?"

Giuliani tries but fails.



Giuliani's argument is that Pennsylvania did not have a consistent set of standards for counting the vote, because Boockvar's instructions were "confusing," "ambiguous" and "improper." And yet, Giuliani also says that he is not questioning whether or not Boockvar's actions were legal. He only says they produced an unequal voting system across the state, because different counties responded to the instructions differently.

Giuliani is not claiming that any counties broke state election law. He is not claiming fraud of any kind (despite his many arguments here that actually do claim fraud--arguments which have no bearing in this case). He is only claiming that, because there was a lack of consistency, there was a breach of equal protection.

The fact is, all counties were given the same instructions at the same time. The defendants point out that it is okay if there are differences in how counties implement the state's election laws. Giuliani is appealing to "Bush v. Gore," but in that case, the state of Florida gave different instructions to different counties. That is not the case here, so Giuliani's appeals to "Bush v. Gore" are irrelevant. There is no valid equal protection claim in this case.

The judge's question about standing also involves another question: "What is the injury to the Trump campaign?" the judge asks, because if there is no particular injury, the Trump campaign has no standing before the court.

The purported answer: If all counties had acted consistently, the outcome of the election would have been very different. In other words, if Trump loses the state, it's because counties applied different rules about ballot curing. 

The facts do not support this claim. There is no evidence that ballot curing influenced the outcome of the election. There is no evidence of injury to the Trump campaign. In fact, it is not true that only Democratic counties allowed voters to cure improper ballots, nor is it true that all Democrat-leaning counties allowed curing, either. Allegheny county, which includes Pittsburgh, is one of the counties whose votes Giuliani wants to deny, yet that county did not allow for any ballot curing. Why would Giuliani try to reject Allegheny county's votes even though they didn't allow for ballot curing? Because he accuses them of blocking election observers--even though that accusation is not a part of this case. In other words, Giuliani is confused. He doesn't even know what case he is arguing. 

I am so glad the judge has ordered this to be released to the public domain. I suspect he did it precisely because he is going to dismiss the case Monday morning (so Pennsylvania can certify its votes Monday afternoon) and he wants the public record to show why. It will forever stand as evidence of Trump and Giuliani's theater of the absurd.

P.S. Another noteworthy point about standing here. The judge asks for any precedent that might help establish "competitive standing," and Giuliani says he just happens to have a plaintiff from a case in the early '90s that establishes just such a precedent. However, later, the judge discovers that the judgment in that case does not mention standing at all. Oops!

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Election 2020: Sky News Australia reveals its bias

 Sky News Australia host Alan Jones says, "the US Presidential election is far from over. How much more evidence of voter fraud do people need?"

The answer, I would say, is that people need a non-zero amount of evidence that massive voter fraud has occurred.  Any non-zero number should do. 

Does Mr. Jones have a non-zero amount on hand? No. He has no evidence. All he has are claims from Trump's lawyers that they have evidence. Mr. Jones would have us assume that the word of Trump's lawyers is enough, as if they represented the truth instead of their client. 

First, Jones presents Sidney Powell's unfounded claims about Dominion software. The Trump team's legal efforts on the Dominion front have failed spectacularly. Dominion conspiracy theories have spread far and wide, but none have been able to stand up to scrutiny.

Then we have Rudy Giuliani's claims about 100,000 Biden ballots mysteriously showing up at 4:30 in the morning in Detroit. These claims are prima facie absurd. What on earth is Giuliani talking about? Is it the debunked conspiracy theory that over 100,000 ballots were illegally smuggled into a Detroit counting center? It's hard to tell with Giuliani, whose penchant for implausible conspiracy theories and general shenanigans is well known. (It's worth noting that less than a third of PolitiFact's Giuliani fact checks have come up true or mostly true. Of course that doesn't mean he's lying, but it does mean we shouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt.)

We might expect Mr. Jones to mention that election officials in those key states (not all of whom are Democrats) have been defending the integrity of the elections. We might also expect him to mention that federal and state cybersecurity officials have issued a joint statement saying that this was the most secure election in US history. Yet, Mr. Jones does not consider listening to the arguments of election or cybersecurity officials or any other experts who might question Trump's lawyers. Instead, he asks Miranda Devine, a correspondent from the New York Post tabloid, to answer the question: "Is it over or not?"

Ms. Devine tries to play it safe, but her bias is clear. First, she draws attention to the fact that Trump and his supporters do not think it is over. Then she mentions the 2,600 votes that had gone uncounted in Georgia, an issue that had nothing to do with the use of Dominion software and ultimately only increased Trump's count by 800 in the state. (That is not anywhere near enough to overcome Biden's 14,000-vote lead.) 

At that point, Mr. Jones interrupts and randomly quotes attorney Sidney Powell, who said, "I don't say anything I can't prove." 

I wonder how Ms. Powell might prove that assertion. In any case, it sounds an awful lot like the hubris we would expect from Trump. Is her confidence supposed to make us think she is telling the truth? If so, it's not working.

Next, Mr. Jones and Ms. Devine discuss the fact that election observers were prevented from accurately counting the votes alongside the election officials. If they were prevented from closely observing each vote, Jones asks, shouldn't there be a recount? 

Ms. Devine does not answer, but says it is what Giuliani is counting on. However, election observers are there to oversee the process, not audit the vote. So it seems absurd to claim that the observers were too far away to clearly read each ballot. They're not there to count votes. As it happens, the Trump team dropped that part of an ongoing lawsuit in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Devine finally claims that, even with all of the questions that have been raised, they might not be enough to overturn Biden's win. She says she doesn't know. Eventually, she says it's "a very high bar" and even that she would not hold her breath. If she wanted to paint the picture a bit more clearly, she could have mentioned the widely reported fact that legal experts have no confidence that Trump has any chance of overturning the election results.

And yet, she says, Trump has a month to come up with enough evidence to make his case, because the electoral college will not finalize the election process until December 14th. Mr. Jones later says Trump has "plenty of time." 

This is very dangerous. They are saying that nothing matters until December 14th, when a group of former Homeland Security chiefs have made it clear that it would be extremely dangerous and irresponsible to extensively delay Biden's transition into the White House. 

When the 2000 election between Gore and Bush was decided by the Supreme Court in the second week of December, it damaged national security. The 9/11 Commission said the delay was partly responsible for the attacks on 9/11. Imagine what damage could be done to America if Biden's transition is delayed until the second week of December in the middle of a COVID pandemic? 

No comment on national security from Sky News Australia, apparently. Instead, they discuss the future of the Democratic Party in general and whether or not Nancy Pelosi will continue in her role as Speaker of the House--"and good riddance to her," says Ms. Devine.

They also say it's an "anomaly" that Republicans did better in the House and Senate than Trump did against Biden. (Republicans actually lost a seat in the Senate, and they could still lose even more, though they did pick up seats in the House.) All this "anomaly" shows is that many Republicans support their party more than they support Donald Trump. He is a divisive figure that has turned Republicans against each other. Indeed, while Mr Jones says he is very interested in what the next week brings for Trump's election chances, what is infinitely more unpredictable and contentious is what the next months and years will bring for the Republican Party, and by extension, American democracy. 

Can the Republican Party withstand the divisions sown by Trump and his allies? Will the Republican Party fully embrace the conspiracy theory that this was a stolen election and use it to wholeheartedly obstruct Biden's administration? While Donald Trump might not be in any condition to run for President in 2024, someone will surely be selling the Trump brand in the Republican Primary come 2024. Who could rise up to challenge them, and what might their platform look like?

A lot depends on who wins the Senate in early January. A lot may also depend on how Fox News responds to the increasing competition in the world of far-right media.



Trump Lies Against Democracy, Again

It begins with some inconsequential news for the majority of Americans: A county in Nevada will have a special election to vote again on a county commissioner seat, because the margin of victory in one district in the Nov 3rd election (a mere 10 votes) was smaller than the number of discrepancies (139 ballot discrepancies out of over 153,000 votes--a tiny fraction of the votes). If the number of discrepancies is larger than the margin of victory, it makes sense to vote again. When one party wins by ten votes out of more than 153,000, a special election is pretty much guaranteed.

Ballot discrepancies are a normal part of every election, and there is nothing unusual or suspicious about the discrepancies in this case. There is no evidence of fraud or any significant problems with the election.

And yet, of course, Trump is trying to spin the story to make it sound like fraud and to fuel anger about his own loss. He blatantly lies, calling the situation a "big victory" in a tweet (of course, a tweet) that says the race was "thrown out because of large scale voter discrepancy. Clark County officials do not have confidence in their own election security. Major impact!"

It's all lies, as usual. There was no large scale voter discrepancy. County officials do not lack confidence in their election security. There is no major impact. Nothing will come of this, except more mass confusion and demagoguery.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Checking Authoritarianism

tl;dr: Whether you are on the left or the right, if you don't make repeated and earnest attempts to listen to and engage respectfully with people on the other side of the political divide, then you are at serious risk of perpetuating authoritarian tendencies.
Politics is about power--how the authority to wield power is justified in society. Authoritarianism is one way of doing it--where power is wielded without being questioned, where subjects put all of their trust in particular authorities and do not hold them to any discernible standards. Authoritarians do not respect anyone who presents an opposing point of view, be it the media or other politicians or academics or experts of any kind, let alone random people they happen to know or meet.
It is common knowledge that right-wing governments tend to be authoritarian. Right-wing authoritarianism is a heavily studied phenomenon. Liberals and progressives find it easy to point out authoritarian tendencies on the right, but aren't so good at identifying authoritarianism in their own backyards. However, left-wing authoritarianism is also a problem. While the tendency is particularly egregious on the right, America and other democratic countries are struggling with authoritarianism on both sides.
The danger of authoritarianism is obvious: It allows political leaders to get away with anything, undermining the norms and laws that are supposed to promote justice and fairness. There may be only one solution: dialogue.
Some people are gleefully authoritarian. They openly claim that they are in no position to question or challenge certain politicians, and they resent any attempts to do so. Gleeful authoritarians proudly put all of their faith in politicians who, they believe, are on a righteous path.
Other people are reluctant supporters of authoritarianism. They believe people should think critically about the way their political leaders wield authority, but their cognitive biases prevent them from doing so. For example, they exhibit extreme cases of denial (they claim that the facts are unclear and they cannot know who to trust), selective perception (only listening to those who support their chosen authority figure) and confirmation bias (only processing information in a way which supports their own point of view).
Reluctant authoritarians claim to be pragmatic. They say they support particular politicians because it is most likely to produce desirable results. They say it is a matter of supporting a particular attitude or direction for society, and not blindly following a particular politician. That's what they tell themselves, but it is a lie. Since they are unable to think critically about the way their chosen politicians wield power, they are unable to come to rational conclusions about the effect those politicians have on society. In short, their professed pragmatism is simply wishful thinking.
Gleeful authoritarians know who they are. Reluctant authoritarians generally do not. But can they? Cognitive biases are in all of us, and the more we think we are immune to them, the more they control our behavior. If you are convinced that you can think critically about politics, but you have trouble listening to and engaging with people who disagree with you, then there is a very good chance you don't recognize your biases. That makes you vulnerable to authoritarian tendencies. 

The question is, how can you know if you are capable of thinking critically about the politicians you support?
One test is to engage in critical discussions with people who disagree with you. See if you can convince them that you understand and respect their critical points of view. If you can convince them, then maybe it's true. If you can't, then it's probably not.
Dialogue is an imperfect test, but it is an important one because the more we do it in earnest, the more our cognitive biases are weakened. The more we try to engage other points of view respectfully and openly, the less we are controlled by the biases which prevent us from seeing them clearly. You don't have to agree with a point of view to respect it, but you have to respect it in order to think critically about it.
Without dialogue, there is little to no hope for critical thinking about opposing points of view. Dialogue may be the only way to check our authoritarian tendencies.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Rise of Skywalker

This post contains spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker and other films in the Skywalker saga.

Having enjoyed The Last Jedi more the second time around, I decided to rewatch The Rise of Skywalker after only seeing it once back when it was in the theaters. I'm glad to say I enjoyed the final episode even more the second time, as well. I am quite impressed with how J. J. Abrams was able to pull it all off. Not only did he create a fast-paced, action-packed adventure story, but he also connected so many plot and character threads with abundant humor and emotional depth. I think it is one of the most satisfying Star Wars films of all and a powerful end to the saga. And yet, it is often rated as one of the worst. I'm trying to understand why.

A lot of people complain that the movie is too focused on a lot of running around trying find things that don't really matter. I don't think that's a fair criticism. It's an adventure story, after all, and every aspect of it is clearly and appropriately motivated. None of it is aimless or random. Yes, I know there is a plot hole regarding the knife that Rey finds and eventually uses to find the Sith wayfinder. There's simply no reason why such a knife would ever exist. It's an illogical plot device that gives an excuse for a lot of fun action, humor and even some drama. Are we going to complain whenever a Star Wars movie depends on an illogical plot device? Because all Star Wars films have them. In The Last Jedi, how does Maz Kanata know exactly where the master codebreaker will be, and what game he will be playing, and what he will be wearing on his lapel at the precise time they will show up at the casino? That plot hole means the whole casino mission makes little to no sense. Here's a list of other plot holes from the same film. I am sure similar lists have been created for all the Star Wars films, some longer than others. If you want to nitpick about plot holes, fine, but don't act like they are unique to this movie.

I've also seen complaints that the film doesn't take consequences seriously: specifically, Chewbacca's death is a fake-out, C3PO regains most of his memory, and Kylo Ren is apparently killed by Emperor Palpatine, only to somehow climb his way back. I have a few responses to this criticism. First, the movie does have a number of significant deaths (most notably, Leia and Ben Solo). I don't think more were necessary. It's not like we're talking about Game of Thrones here. Second, would the story be better if Chewbacca had died at that moment, or if C3PO never got any of his memory back, or if Ben Solo was simply gone at that moment? No, I don't think so. All of these reversals are satisfying to me, and none feel cheap. Finally, the use of reversals has merit. It provides for a more dynamic emotional experience. I would agree with the criticism if every negative turn was reversed, or if the reversals felt cheap and worked against the story. But that is not the case.

Another complaint has to do with who has access to the Force. A lot of people responded well to the populist message in The Last Jedi, and wanted more of the same from Episode IX. However, I don't see Abrams' film as negating or ignoring that message in any way. On the contrary, he expands on it. The Rise of Skywalker focuses a lot on common people, how they can be empowered and united, and how anyone (including disillusioned storm troopers) can be Force sensitive. Finn discusses his own Force sensitivity, linking it directly to feelings. Of course, having feelings can't be enough to become Force sensitive, because then it would be a lot more common, but feelings clearly play a role. There must be some explanation for why everyone in the Star Wars universe hasn't been using the Force. Rian Johnson's film doesn't address that question at all. At least Abrams explores it, and without invoking Midichlorians.

Now, some of the criticisms run deeper, and have to do with ideas about what Star Wars films are or should be. For example, some people say that J. J. Abrams was trying too hard to please fans, that he was playing it too safe by undoing the supposedly risky moves that Rian Johnson had made in the previous episode. This line of argument is hard for me to accept, though. Part of the reason is that I don't appreciate all of Johnson's decisions. As I wrote previously, his attempt to end the question of destiny was premature and resulted in weak character arcs for Rey and Kylo Ren, who are the two most important characters in the third and final trilogy. So, yes, Abrams walked back some of Johnson's maneuvers, but he did it in a way that feels authentic and true to the spirit of the Skywalker saga. Ultimately, the moves (in particular, bringing back Ren's helmet and making Rey a Palpatine) allowed the film to focus on the crucial question of destiny. And I think Abrams handled that question remarkably well.

After being rejected by Rey and after a humiliating encounter with Luke Skywalker, why wouldn't Kylo Ren feel the imposing weight of Darth Vader's legacy? Why wouldn't he try to hide behind his old mask again? Abrams' choices make perfect sense. Kylo Ren is not a confident, stable military leader. He is a frightened man-child who cannot come to terms with who he is. As Luke tells Rey in Episode IX, a Jedi's destiny is to face their fear. The saga has always focused on the relationship between identity and bloodlines, and the fear that can induce. That is why it's called the Skywalker saga, after all, and not simply the Star Wars saga. In the original trilogy, Luke's destiny is to face his father, whom he is afraid of becoming. Rey's destiny is to face her grandfather, whom she is afraid of becoming. And Ben Solo's destiny is to come to terms with his own grandfather's shadow. Destiny, in this sense, is not about fatalism. It's not that everything is predetermined. It's that becoming a Jedi just means that that is what you have to do. Being a Jedi means being balanced and in control, and you cannot do that if you don't face your fear and come to terms with who you are.

Abrams didn't just rehash old plot lines, either. Rey's story is unique in a number of important ways. For one thing, she breaks the tie to her lineage, giving new meaning to the entire saga. When Luke prevails at the end of Return of the Jedi, it is because he has successfully rekindled the love in his father's heart. He wins because his father protects him, and so he proudly keeps his father's name. When Rey prevails at the end of the saga, however, she does not honor her family name. Seeing Luke and Leia's Force ghosts looking over her, she chooses the Skywalker name for herself. This is a much stronger ending than Luke's. Unlike Luke, Rey wins because she is stronger than Emperor Palpatine. Yes, she basically dies in the process of killing him, and she only survives because Ben Solo repays the debt he owes her for saving his life. But that points to another key difference about Rey's story: She also prevails because of the compassion which allows her to love Ben Solo and save his life (effectively killing Kylo Ren). Unlike Luke, or any other Star Wars character, Rey's story has always been about compassion--about letting compassion guide you, even if it means leaving your biological family. That is what starts her journey when she meets BB-8, and it is what carries her through until the end.

Does The Rise of Skywalker feel more like a sequel to The Force Awakens than to The Last Jedi? If so, it is not because Abrams was rejecting Rian Johnson's film. Rather, it's because the main characters--Rey, Finn, Poe, Leia, Kylo Ren--never really changed at all in Rian Johnson's film. The Last Jedi ends with them all basically where they were at the end of The Force Awakens, except Luke and Snoke are dead, Finn is conscious, Kylo Ren broke his helmet and Rey thinks her parents didn't matter. Episode IX picks up those pieces and tells a story that threads together all the previous films in the Skywalker saga. It is a sequel to The Last Jedi and to The Force Awakens and to the six episodes that came before. That is what it should be.

Now, if you simply didn't enjoy the movie, what can I say? Maybe you weren't in the mood for it. Or maybe it just didn't match your expectations. I recommend watching it again. You might enjoy it more the second time. If not, oh well. We all have different tastes. For me, this is a lot better--it's funnier, more exciting and more emotionally impactful--than it has any right to be. I'd rank it up there with the best of the saga.

If you are interested in reading another defense of the film against common criticisms, check out what Erik Kain wrote at Forbes.