One about trying to go home, in WhiskeyPaper

A short one up over at WhiskeyPaper, called “Cumberland Briefly,” about trying to go home again, about shots of Lord Calvert, Nintendo games, and about trying to not feel so strange.


Star Wars for the Rest of Us

First day of my first semester of college, and I’m walking across campus behind two boys who are arguing, red-faced, about things I’d heard about but had never thought about. (This was essentially my college experience.) The first boy was convinced Star Trek was the best science-fiction franchise. The second was equally convinced it was Star Wars that had the more fully realized world. That’s what he said: “A more fully realized world.” By the time we were climbing the steps to Susquehanna Hall, the Star Trek boy had given up, or else was the lesser arguer, or maybe he’d just gotten hungry.

Like so many things that I encountered in earnest in college—books, languages, music, movies, drugs—I was blown away by the depth with which other people, people who looked more or less like me, felt about the Star Wars movies. These two boys thought about Star Wars, and they thought about it a lot, and with great intensity. I thought about girls a lot and I thought about the Pittsburgh Pirates and Led Zeppelin a lot, and I’d soon enough add to that short list, but it was in Star Wars that I first noticed that other people had been doing this kind of deep thinking, this obsessing about things that had been there all along but which I’d ignored.

And, looking back, of course Star Wars would be the first to reach inside and shake me up. Not only because these boys, like me, were 18, ripe to become absorbed by a long, in-depth story involving laser battles and love and duty and destiny. But also because it’s always been bigger than that, wider, more global. Everybody’s seen Star Wars, or at the least seen the toys, the backpacks. Everyone’s neurons fire when you say “Yoda” or “Luke Skywalker” or, for sure, “Darth Vader.” While perhaps past generations had the Bible or baseball, Star Wars has been our common story, our common language. Almost everybody likes it, or at least something about it. Many love it. Very few hate it. Star Wars dings us. It does not, usually, just sit there.

Only, for me, it did just sit there. Even after listening to that argument that first day of college, I’d never loved these movies. Since college, my interests wound up going deep, too, but for other things. I threw my late nights, my quiet Sundays, down other dark wells. I promise, Star Wars superfans, that I’m not trying to annoy you. I’m not trying to be contrary. I’m not being the guy who hates football or the Beatles or, you know, fun. It’s only that, for me, Star Wars was just another set of movies. I’ve long known about grown men my age—friends—who own replicas of the Millennium Falcon, but for me, the movies were simply entertaining, and cool to look at, and big and epic, but, well, turns out I’d never seen the second half of The Empire Strikes Back.

So, with the release of the seventh movie imminent, I tasked myself with watching all six of them. Tough job, I know. (I work from home.) With relatively fresh eyes, here’s maybe a little about what’s going on here, with these X-wings, these cantina scenes, these droids of yours.

Richness of the World. It’s just flat-out a big, intricate, layered, dangerous world, with lots of history and conflict and drama. You can lose yourself in Star Wars. I get that. I read Lord of the Rings when I was—ahem, 25—and it reached up and pulled me in. Everything in Star Wars has a name. There are nooks. It accepts your time, your energy. It rewards obsession. It’s all about your dorkiness, these movies.

Hero’s Journey to the Max, Dudes. As someone who tries (poorly, slowly) to study how stories get told, if there’s one story type that seems to work well for the big fantasy world (Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter and Hunger Games stories), it’s the lowly nobody who discovers inner strength to defeat great odds, and great evil, with some messy internal conflicts along the way. And Darth Vader is famous for good reason. He’s a great villain, a great fallen character. Having just watched all six movies, I’m surprised he wasn’t a bigger deal around Halloween time when I was, you know, eight.

The Older Three Are Indeed So Much Better Than the Newer Three. For an epic that’s so concerned with dichotomies: father/son, good/bad, The Force/The Dark Side, Jedis/Siths, green light sabers/red light sabers, it’s perhaps appropriate that the older three movies, when compared to the newer three, are relatively bad. It’s not even close. This opinion is so nearly universal among hardcore Star Wars people so as to be cliché. My friend who loaned me the six DVDs called the ones released in 1999, 2002, and 2005 “dogshit garbage,” and, if anything, among superfans, he’s on the gentler end of the spectrum. The truth is that the newer three, while not terrible, are not nearly as good as the three released in 1977, 1980, and 1983. Creator George Lucas, hamstrung by the digital effects of the time, made compelling movies with good stories underpinned by actual physical models of spaceships and stop-motion photography which apparently he thought looked clunky but to my eyes just looks cool.* The newer movies, on the other hand, are so jam-packed with computer-generated slickness that they’re comparatively soulless. Again, this is not news to dedicated fans, but to someone watching them for only the second time, the newer trilogy feels ironically wooden and slick for slick’s sake and generally pretty corny. I can understand, in other words, why the hardcore-types were so upset (and they were very upset) with George Lucas for the newer three. They felt their beloved story had been dipped in bleach. I get it. It was how I felt when Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh for San Francisco.

* The Imperial Snow-Walkers. I know they have actual names, but the big gray hulking Imperial snow-walkers in Empire Strikes Back are, for my money, some of the coolest non-human things in any movie. I find myself picturing these awful machines when I see a Great Dane. I think about them sometimes at night, while falling asleep, the threatening lurching-ness, the animal-like groaning. I see them in construction cranes. My neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. I see lots of cranes.

Han Solo and Sex. I never understood, until I watched all six movies, why so many women responded, and continue to respond, so strongly to Harrison Ford as Han Solo. He’s a charming dickhead. I spent many hours in my 20s, in bars and at parties, marveling at how much some girls liked charming dickheads. I’ve asked several women about Han Solo in the past few weeks. Try it. There’s a strong reaction. And he’s another reason the newer three movies fall flat. There’s no Han Solo, or anyone taking his place. In the older three, Han and Leia, they wanted to bone. There’s very little sex in the newer trilogy. I can’t overstate this. No one’s getting laid, not even the people (the young Darth Vader and the queen played by Natalie Portman) who technically have sex (in order to produce Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia). I assume they procreated asexually. There is no boning in the newer movies, nor even a threat of it. The chance of boning is near zero percent. There’s a lot of Samuel Jackson as a really boring Jedi and a lot of Yoda spinning around in the air and there are a lot of angry light sabers getting waved around, but those light sabers aren’t doing anything fun. I think I’ve made my point here.

The Music Is Cool, Man. I swear that, back in the mid-80s, before I’d seen much of the Star Wars movies at all, there was a college football band that played the Darth Vader theme. I know it. I can remember doing whatever it was I was doing, hearing the Darth Vader theme, asking my mom about it, and she saying something like, “Oh, that’s Star Wars, I think.” It’s so good, John Williams’ music, that it sent chills up my spine when played by a college marching band on a third-and-long on some November afternoon a long, long time ago.

In the end, I think I’m growing up. While the nerdy part of me liked the cool stuff, the spaceships, those snow walkers, the light-saber battles bored me much more than I’d been expecting. I found Luke’s story, his boy-to-man journey, touching. He’s a vulnerable, rash, young man who’s forced to grow up. I liked Princess Leia a lot. I understand why she was into Han Solo. I felt bad for Darth Vader. R2D2 really is the heart of the whole thing. What I’m saying is I’m a-gonna watch that new Star Wars. Maybe not tomorrow, but I’ll get there. Probably on Tuesday. Maybe Monday.