Star Wars Saved My Life: Navigating local tributes and overarching themes on opening weekend of Episode VII

Dec 18, 2015 at 10:49 pm
Star Wars Saved My Life: Navigating local tributes and overarching themes on opening weekend of Episode VII

I used to tell people that Star Wars saved my life.

I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life. One the worst jags came during the winter of 1998/1999. It was my freshman year of college. I had broken up with my longtime girlfriend before leaving home for school. She had moved on, I had not. In addition to heartbreak, I was discovering that college was not the wonderland that I had always been promised. Rather than finding kindred spirits at Wright State University’s 35,000 person campus, I was feeling the same sense of frustration and isolation as in high school. The winter in Ohio was longer, colder and darker than the fair climate of Louisville. The land was too flat, the sky was too big, and I could feel it pressing down on me.

Then Star Wars: the Phantom Menace came out. It wasn't just the release of the film, it was a growing sense of energy preceding the release. First there was a 30 second trailer. I watched it a dozen times in the movie theater I worked in over Christmas break. Then there was the second trailer. Then pre-sale of tickets. Look around in the vaults of the Dayton Daily News and you’ll find a brief interview with the guy who was first in line to buy those tickets: It was me.

More than any other moment, the night that single handedly lifted me out of depression was the Toys “R” Us midnight release party for the new Episode I toys.

My big brother Jonah and I, who shared a massive Star Wars collection, accrued over years of obsessive stalking of flea markets and toy aisles, waited for hours outside Toys “R” Us in a line with hundreds of eager fans, many in costume. We all shared stories as we waited, talking about our favorite moments from the films, or times Star Wars has touched our lives. We quizzed each other on trivia, bragged about the jewels in our Star Wars collections. Some people tried to guess the plot to the upcoming film. We were like those early Christians, who upon meeting a stranger, would supposedly draw one-half of the ichthus in the dirt, to see if that stranger knew the other half of the secret symbol — each offering proof to the other that we were kindred spirits.

When the doors of Toys “R” Us opened, we pressed in hard, but it wasn't anything like the horror we see yearly at Black Friday. Gleeful people dressed as aliens, warriors and warrior princesses filled their shopping baskets, and it felt more like Christmas. People shouted in the aisles, but it wasn't in anger, it was to help each other track down figures. “Does anyone see a Mace Windu?” someone called. “There’s an extra one over here,” someone yelled back, then added, “Can you see a Captain Tarpuls?”

I went in with simple hopes. I wanted a 12-inch Darth Maul and a double-bladed lightsaber, but my brother and I ended up spending more than four hundred dollars that night, and we purchased every single action figure available in the first wave of toys.

It was perhaps excessive, but nevertheless glorious.

As we wandered back to my brother’s ’88 Buick, at nearly 2 a.m., the Toys “R” Us parking lot was full of grown men and women opening their toys, or keeping them closed in hopes of preserving each collectible’s mint condition. The toys no one seemed able to leave closed were the lightsabers, and spontaneous duels where breaking out all over.

I watched the glowing blades spin and twirl in the hands of people I had never met but had always known, their shouts and joy pressing that too big sky just a little further away. I didn’t feel alone anymore.

The Fervor Awakens

A couple weeks back, I pitched a short arts preview to my editor. In one weekend there were two humorous Star Wars related events — The Roast of Darth Vader at the Bard’s Town, and The One Man Star Wars Trilogy at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. My editor said I could do a couple of staff picks on the events, but asked if I could also wrap those two events into a larger piece that talked about the Star Wars phenomenon in a larger sense. You know, “If I had thoughts on the subject.”

I have a lot of thoughts.

When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, it had been 16 years since a new Star Wars movie came out. I wasn’t the only fan caught up. The whole nation was losing its mind. The media attention reached a fever pitch, and Star Wars merchandise seemed to ooze from the very air around us. A supposed billion dollar licensing deal with Pepsi flooded KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and every single convenience store with merch.

It was a lot like the fervor now surrounding The Force Awakens. It’s been 10 years since Episode III. While many fans were disappointed with the prequels, the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, and George Lucas’ handing over of the franchise, has led a lot of us to hope that the new trilogy will be better.

But if the Disney machine continues with its current plans to release a new Star Wars film every year, we may never go quite this star crazy ever again. The anticipation is heightened by the decade-plus wait. It’s been long enough for a generation of kids to incorporate Star Wars into their identities, hobbies, and hopes. Just like I felt back in 1999, these fans have been waiting for what feels like their whole lives for this movie.

Then there is that new hope from older, more cynical fans that this new trilogy will be better than the prequels. But what does better even mean? What’s that yardstick? The Star Wars films, it could be argued, are kids movies. Even if that definition is too limiting, it’s at least true that many of us fell in love with Star Wars when we were children. There is no reason that a kids movie can’t be a great film. Critically acclaimed kids classics like “Babe” or “Toy Story” are every bit as well crafted as other greats of the cinematic canon.

The love of Star Wars isn’t simply a reflection of whether or not any particular film is “good.” It’s so much bigger than that. But regardless of the relative quality, is it ever really possible to love something fiercely as a child, and then be satisfied with its contemporary version as an adult? Let me put it another way. As kids, my brother Jonah and I spent so much time trying to figure out what the clone wars must have been like. We were given almost nothing to go on in the original trilogy — a line or two of dialogue. But we speculated wildly, for countless hours over the years, constructing timelines from the scant information offered. Could any filmed version of those clone wars ever live up to the unfettered glory of a child's imagination?

Similarly, can any filmed version of whatever events follow the explosion of the second Death Star ever truly capture adult imaginations?

Can you ever go back to Shangri-La?

Who Owns Star Wars?

Disney. Next question.

Kidding. There is, no doubt, a thousand-page document drawn up between Disney and George Lucas that gives us an exacting legal answer to the question. But that’s just the law. Star Wars wouldn’t exist without massive communal buy in from several generation of fans, many of whom actively create new content and material that is shared through a variety of media. In array of offerings that range from sweet to crass, from pure to pornographic, and from skilled to execrable, fans of all ages make their own contributions to a body of Star Wars works that could easily drown the canonical sources.

For an interesting case study, let’s look at the two comedic treatments of Star Wars that I first pitched as arts stories to my editor, before she was crazy enough to ask me to write my broader thoughts on Star Wars.

The Roast of Darth Vader is original comedic entertainment, created by a group of Louisville comedians collectively known as The Louisville Roasters. It’s the latest in a series of original work drawing on the popularity of established characters and franchises. Described by one of its participants as “part theatre, part stand up comedy, part improv,” this roast apes the format of the Fryers Club Roasts wherein a celebrity is chosen, generally on their birthday, and a host of comedic talents mock them for a couple of hours. The comedians also mock each other, and current events, and really anything they feel like making fun of. The Louisville Roasters keep the mocking, but generally choose a fictional character as the subject of their derision. The real genius is that they go a step further and each portray a fictional character. Local comedian Ranaan Hershberg doesn’t roast Vader, Han Solo does. Comedian Kent Carney couldn’t be found on the stage, but C3P0 showed up to tell some jokes.

The roasts started as late night entertainment at the Bard’s Town, but have grown so much in popularity that they take over the BT’s main theatre for a full weekend, offering two shows a night. After the entire weekend of the Roast of Darth Vader sold out, a second weekend was added. It was a great show, and if you aren’t easily offended, I highly recommend you catch their next roast.

These roasts succeed because of the audience’s love for the fandom being represented by the roast. Of course the talent and vision of the roasters shouldn’t be ignored, but people show up at these things to commune with their fellow nerds in a shared experience that extends beyond  the official sources. Those fans can be fondly remembering “Saved by The Bell,” “Batman,” “Star Wars,” or a host of other franchises. The Roasters have set their sights on nearly 30 targets over the last several years.

But I doubt that Lucasfilm or Disney would approve of the raunchy blow job jokes I heard two Fridays ago as I sat in a sold-out crowd at the Bard’s Town. And I’d bet you my best droid that the Roasters are operating in that shady legal area of copyright law somewhat protected by virtue of being satire. Or, to paraphrase Lando Calrissian, their operation is small enough to avoid Imperial attention.

On the other hand, the “One-Man Star Wars Trilogy,” which rolled through town two nights later and made a stop at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, is an officially licensed part of the Star Wars brand.

Since 2001, Charles Ross, a Canadian actor, has performed his humorous, high-energy one-person version of the original trilogy. He’s taken it all over the world. It’s a much cleaner homage to a galaxy far, far away. It’s also tighter. At under an hour, Ross has cut out all the dross and kept only the comedic gold. It was also a great show, and Ross is working on a one-person “Dark Knight Trilogy” that I’m hoping makes its way to Louisville sooner rather than later.

But one of these shows has the official stamp of approval, one does not. Does that make one better than the other?

What Star Wars villain is more important? Darth Maul, or the Space Ninjas Jonah and I created in our playroom as foils to the Jedi? Like the version of the murder of Anakin Skywalker that Obi-wan offers Luke in Episode IV, I suspect it depends greatly on your point of view.

To say that Star Wars is like a religion to some people is redundant and reductive; it’s been said before, and it doesn’t really capture what’s happening.

But like any religion, Star Wars fans crave ways to interact with their pantheon. While watching the films, playing the games and reading the books are all ways to interact, these live experiences — like The Roast and “One-Man Star Wars” — offer a different kind of connection. It’s immediate and vital.

But if watching a live show is like going to a religious ritual, then performing in one is like joining the priesthood. In the same weekend that those two shows were onstage, another live-action Star Wars experience was beginning, and I got to watch. The book “Verily, A New Hope,” is a script for a Shakespeare/Star Wars mashup that came out a couple years ago. Of course, those mash-happy blenders of pop and art down at The Alley Theater are producing it.

I interviewed several of the auditionees. They all were quick to offer proof of their status as Star Wars fans, quoting quotes, and sharing memories.

One pair of auditionees, a mom and son duo from Indiana, showcased the particular intergenerational quality of Star Wars. She loved the movies as a kid, and has raised her son on them.

The son was the most stereotypical “nerd” I saw at auditions. With his thick glasses and slightly nasal voice, he was almost a caricature, even pulling out his own copy of “Verily, A New Hope” from which to read. But he had some acting chops. I watched him transform in rapid succession into an old Jedi, a persnickety protocol droid, and a commanding Sith Lord.

This is the real power of the Force. For decades now, it has allowed all us dreamy kids with our noses in books, obsessed with quotes and actions figures, to temporarily take on the mantels of far more powerful beings. Whether we are literally pretending to be space wizards, or showcasing our prowess by one-upping someone else with obscure trivia, Star Wars lets us ascend to a higher level of being, even if only for moments at a time.

Then again, isn’t most human interaction and achievement about momentarily feeling that we have some kind of control of the world around us? When some sportsball player dribbles the basketball down the field, isn’t he grasping at some sense of purpose and meaning? Weren’t those first proto-religions just scared cave people trying to pretend through sacrifice and ritual that they could in some way appease and influence the implacable and deadly forces of their world?

The Prequels

Many people loved the prequels, and a new generation of fans came up with the adventures of Anakin, Padme, Jar Jar and the rest. But there was also a huge and incredibly vocal backlash from the adult fans, including me, though not initially, as I was in deep denial. It took ten viewings of Episode I in the theater, countless re-watches of a bootleg copy and finally the release of the pile of womp rat feces that was Episode II before I could finally admit it. If you had been in that movie theater in Huber Heights, on opening night of Attack of the Clones, and listened closely during Anakin’s monologue about hating sand, you might have heard my heart breaking.

It still sometimes hurts my brain to think about. People will jokingly ask me about the prequels, and I’ll tell them I don’t talk about them in public. They’ll laugh, and egg me on, and I’ll insist, but they’ll insist harder, and twenty minutes later, after I’ve finished going beat by beat through the three films listing basic story inconsistencies between the original trilogy and the prequels, blood will start to freely flow from their nose, and they’ll apologize, but it will be too late. An hour later, tired and sad and doubting the basic decency of humanity, I’ll sit down in a corner and try to remember what wonder used to feel like.

I mostly made peace with the prequels when I was working with kids. Though the disappointment stung deeply, it started to feel like old heartbreak; it all happened a long time ago, and it felt so far away.  Watching a couple of 8-year-olds duel with lightsabers and imagine what it’s like to be a Jedi, it’s hard to stay pissed. Putting it another way, I fell in love with Star Wars by playing and imagining, and I fell a little bit back in love with it the same way.

Running full summer camps and after-school classes, I’ve spent hours and hours as an adult in lightsaber battles, making paper droids and starships. I still have a thick file of Star Wars coloring pages, carefully xeroxed, so we can color as many Darth Mauls as we need.

I’ve made my peace with the prequels, but I can’t say I’m excited to see the new film.

That Damned Metal Bikini

I can’t talk about Star Wars, or fandom in general, without talking about its problems.

Maybe the best single symbol of nerd-doms ongoing struggle with its own sexism is Princess Leia’s slave girl outfit from Jabba’s palace.

As a geek who grew up with the films, I’d be lying if I said that outfit wasn't a formative and important part of my puberty. But admitting that I am a male who enjoys visual stimulation neither excuses nor disqualifies me from talking about the problematic aspects of fandom, and its rampant sexism is one of those problems.

In the attempt to find an in to that conversation for this article, I reached out to local actress April Singer. For the last several years, Singer has donned all of Princess Leia’s costumes, including the iconic slave girl outfit, for her role in “Star Wars in Sixty Minutes or Less,” another live adaptation of the original trilogy. The show started five years ago with a successful run at the Alley Theater, and has since played the Bard’s Town, venues in Nashville, and has been featured at genre conventions like Fandom Fest, a sizable local convention focused on genre fiction, film and TV.

To my dismay, Singer wasn’t a huge Star Wars fan before signing on to the show. I felt a moment of frustration, and even began formulating the awful sentence in my brain “Wait, you aren’t a real fan?” before I mentally shrugged off that ugly instinct.

The impulse to decide who is a “real fan” is the dark side of the ichthus interaction. And it’s always worse for lady-nerds. While two dude nerds will share a couple of tidbits to establish their mutual nerd cred, a lady nerd will get a serious quiz. It’s one of a thousand little micro aggression they put up with — like the assumption that an unaccompanied woman in a comic shop is always there to buy her boyfriend a present, never to pick up her pull list.

Her years in “Star Wars in Sixty Minutes or Less” have given Singer a greater appreciation for the films, and she re-watches them every time the show gets remounted, but it wasn’t her nerdiness that brought her to this galaxy; it was the acting bug.

Is that any less valid? What’s the right way to like something?

There are plenty of lady-nerds who could go toe to toe with anybody on Star Wars trivia, and grew up loving the toys like I did. But I think arguing the trivia tidbits cedes the argument to the gatekeepers. There is no single “right” way to love Star Wars. Conversely, I’m damn sure the wrong way is one that excludes someone.

Singer, though a late-blooming Star Wars fan, has plenty of thoughts on Princess Leia, including a certain frustration with that bikini. “There’s like, one strong female character, and then in the third movie they had to go and overly sexualize her.”

But Singer does wear the bikini onstage, and at conventions. She says most fans are respectful and very nice, but that there are always creepy guys. In recent years some conventions have worked really hard to cut down on the sexual harassment that women in costume experience, partially in response to the Cosplay is Not Consent movement.

Onstage, Singer says the problematic bikini gets addressed within the mad cap action of the show. “We make a thing of it,” said Singer, who says the jokes they make about the costume make a point: “It doesn’t add anything to the story, other than ‘Look, lady in a bikini that we can all stare at.’”

Singer says completely cutting the bikini out of a stage show would be a mistake. “Just not wearing the costume at all wouldn’t open up any conversation.”

Nerds need to have these conversations, and own up to the problems in that galaxy and this one.

Hi, My Name is Eli Keel

I’ve spent countless hours playing with, thinking about, and obsessing over Star Wars. I don’t think I can ever stop. At this point it’s like being an alcoholic or a Catholic; even if I never drink again or ever set foot in a church, it won’t change what I am.

Maybe ownership shouldn’t be about legality, but rather communal participation. Maybe I hated the prequels because I can never recapture my childhood. Maybe fandom is inherently sexist because society is inherently sexist. Maybe the same plastic toys that once fascinated me are killing today’s kids ability to imagine for themselves.

I don’t know. I’m a Star Wars fan. That’s the only real answer I have to any of the huge questions about life that the franchise poses for me.

The Force Awakens will come out. I can’t say I’m excited about the new movie, any more than I could say I’m looking forward to the next election, or positive about the chances of reversing gun crime in our country, or optimistic that we’ll stomp out racism in my lifetime.

The world is a far more complicated and darker place than I ever knew back when my heart first flew the Millennium Falcon, or burst with joy when the Death Star exploded. But I will go see the new film. Because sometimes I need to put down the questions and pick up a plastic space sword. I need to pretend the bad guys always lose, and do my best to believe in any kind of new hope or redemption I can awaken in my adult brain.

Maybe you can come pretend and believe too.

May the Force be with you.

... and keep an eye out for the Roasters next show by checking out their Facebook page, catch April Singer at the Bard’s Town in the Kinds of Christmas through December 21st, and watch for The Alley Theater’s production of “Verily, A New Hope” in early 2016).