Monthly Archives: January 2020

In Memoriam: Stan Kirsch

For most of my twenties, I was well-nigh obsessed with a television show called Highlander: The Series, which was a spin-off from the cult-favorite 1986 film about immortal warriors who live secretly among ordinary humans and can die only if their heads get cut off. If you think that sounds kind of ridiculous, well, I suppose I can’t blame you. I mean, the show is what it is: a relatively low-budget 1990s syndicated fantasy-action series that aired in the wee hours of the night, at least in the Salt Lake market. Looking back now, almost 22 years after the final episode, I have to acknowledge that it would probably be a tough sell to a modern viewer who’s not already a fan. Back in the day, though, I dearly loved it. Yes, I did.

As a young man trying to figure out who I was, I saw the kind of person I wanted to be in many of the show’s characters. Duncan MacLeod, the ancient Scottish Highlander of the title, and his immortal friends were confident, sophisticated, worldly. They traveled and read literature and knew about art and wine and whisky and food. They’d been everywhere and had friends and lovers — and enemies, as well, given the premise of the show — all over the place. They were equally at ease in an elegant chateau or a bare-brick industrial-style loft above a grimy martial-arts dojo. They hung out in a blues bar. They were cool.

And then there was Richie.

The character of Richie Ryan, played by a young actor named Stan Kirsch, was initially a sort of foster child for Duncan, a street kid that the immortal took under his wing and tried to teach how to become a better man. I think Richie was also intended to be a surrogate for the audience, an ordinary person who was naive to the existence of immortals until he chose the wrong home to try to rob, and then was drawn deeper and deeper into their world. Like a lot of young sidekick characters in TV of that era, Richie was occasionally hard to stomach. He was written as a smart aleck and could be something of a dork, and baby-faced Stan was never believably as tough as someone from Richie’s hardscrabble background would likely have been. (Maybe that was the point… a kid who acted like a tough guy and so visibly was not.) My own sense is that the showrunners weren’t quite sure what to do with him beyond a certain point. Richie was eventually revealed to be one of the immortals himself, whereupon he changed from Duncan’s child to an apprentice and then to a friend, if maybe not ever quite a peer. He gradually became less and less of a presence on the show, more a recurring character instead of a regular… and then, in a stunning development that was either audacious or boneheaded depending on your perspective, the character was killed off by Duncan MacLeod himself in the cliffhanger ending of the show’s fifth season.

The death of Richie Ryan divided Highlander fandom as thoroughly as anything that JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson ever did to Star Wars. I had just begun to explore the internet in those days, and I watched in amazement and dismay as the once-inviting Highlander message board I’d been hanging out on deteriorated into a vicious brawl between those who were fine with this latest plot twist and those who simply would not — could not! — accept it. The latter took to calling themselves Clan Denial, and somewhere in some distant corner of the World Wide Web, their cries of anguish and fury are probably still echoing. It was my first taste of the infighting that would eventually infect all fandoms in the internet age.

For my part, I thought killing Richie, at least in the manner in which it was done — i.e., at the hands of his friend, mentor, and father figure — was pretty shitty. I had never been a big partisan for the character so I wasn’t angry enough about it to go Clan Denial, but I didn’t like it, and I do think it was a factor in Highlander‘s rapid decline afterward. The show’s producers had made a mistake, and the abbreviated sixth season felt like it had a cloud hanging over it from the start. Richie — and Stan — returned for the final episode, which was a kind of riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, but, to use the modern parlance, the show had jumped the shark in a major way, and when I think back on the series now, I tend to think of it as ending before that tectonic fracture-point episode in which he was killed.

I realize I’m rambling a bit here… forgive me. I haven’t actually thought about a lot of this stuff in many years, and hearing the news last week that Stan Kirsch had died stirred up a lot of memories. Stan was only 51, just a year older than myself, and even though I was not particularly a fan of Richie — I was always drawn to Duncan, or to the mortal-but-very-cool Joe Dawson — I feel like I’ve lost a major piece of my past. I didn’t identify with Richie, but in some weird way, I find myself identifying with Stan. I just keep coming back to the closeness of our ages. He was the same age I am. And the show was such a huge part of my young adulthood, part of the whole mood and texture of that time in my life. In certain respects, it was more important to me at that time, more influential certainly, than my usual media obsessions, Star Trek and Star Wars. I was already a fan of it before I started dating Anne, but she liked the show as well and watching it together became one of our weekly rituals. I used to record the latest episode on VHS and then take the tape to her house. I remember one night when we ventured online together, possibly for the first time, looking to see if we could find anything related to the show in this new digital frontier we’d been hearing about, and the first thing we ran across was a trove of fanfiction… slash fiction, no less. We were equal parts shocked and amused by that stuff. And we even traveled to Los Angeles together to attend a farewell convention when the show wrapped production… our first convention together. We were pretty naive about the whole con scene at that time, and we utterly failed to meet most of the cast members who were there, including Stan, because we just weren’t sure how it was all supposed to work. We’ve since met Adrian Paul, who played Duncan, a number of times, often enough that I get the impression he actually recognizes our faces. But never Stan. And now we’ll never get that chance, and I feel a true, deep sense of regret about it. I just always assumed there would be time, you know? After all, we were both young enough…

I think what’s really bothering me is the fact that Stan died by suicide. I’ve seen speculation on social media that he may have been ill — some people who saw him at a convention last year say he was very thin — and of course there’s always talk about depression when someone takes their own life. But who really knows? Stan wasn’t in the public eye very much and I honestly don’t know much about him. I know that after Highlander, he guest-starred on several episodes of Friends, as well as NCIS and a couple other TV series. I know that he and his wife started an acting school a few years back and that it was evidently pretty successful. But that’s it, really. I’m sorry I don’t know more, and I’m sorry I never got around to meeting him in person. And when it comes down to it, I’m sorry that something had evidently gone wrong enough in his life or in his head that he ended up in that place.

When Highlander was first on the air, I was young enough that I really did feel immortal. There was plenty of time ahead to figure it all out and to do everything I wanted to do. I imagine Stan Kirsch felt the same way back then. So what the hell happened?

I’m feeling very mortal right now…

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Friday Evening Videos: “Never Let You Go”

For many years now, I’ve had it my head that I completely disengaged from popular music somewhere around 1991 (the year that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” brought everyone down), but that’s not really true. Yes, I was having more and more difficulty finding current music that I liked, as well as expanding my interests into other genres and time periods. But when I decided on a whim to build a Spotify playlist of ’90s songs that I remember liking back in the day, I very quickly piled up a little over eight hours’ worth of tunes. So obviously I wasn’t as oblivious to it all as I’ve imagined.

I haven’t done the research, but I have a hunch that a lot of my ’90s likes are probably clustered toward the end of the decade, when I was hooked for a time on an over-the-air music-video channel I discovered called The Box. It was a weird, fly-by-night sort of operation way down near the bottom of the UHF band (ask your parents, kids!). I want to say it was channel 58? Something like that. Down in the nether regions where reception was tenuous at best and a lot of the ghostly signals you managed to pull in were in Spanish. The Box had a primitive interactive model where you could call a phone number and request a video from a menu for a small fee, which occasionally led to crap like Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” playing multiple times in a single hour for days on end. But it also lent the channel a sort of organic, homemade feeling. You could see anything from hip-hop to German heavy metal to electronic dance music. I found that I liked a lot of the pop-punk acts that briefly flourished around that time, groups such as Lit, blink-182, even Smashmouth before they sold out and “Allstar” got played to death in movies and TV ads. I also liked a lot of artists that probably didn’t have much redeeming value just because they were easy on the eyes. There was Britney Spears, obviously, and her contemporary Christina Aguilera; the Spice Girls, of course; and even the tattooed cutie who sang lead for Aqua. Yes, I just confessed to kinda-sorta liking the song “Barbie Girl.” Don’t say a word.

One of my favorite songs from that era actually sounded like something of a throwback to the Awesome ’80s, at least to my ear. “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind is built around catchy pop hooks and some weirdly melancholy lyrics that the band’s lead singer, Stephan Jenkins, claims are about the actress Charlize Theron, whom he dated for three years. But what really earns my affection for this one is the breakdown toward the end when we hear that crunchy guitar sound I’ve always loved, the same sort of thing you hear in “Jessie’s Girl” or one of my other favorite Rick Springfield songs, “Love Somebody.”

I don’t have any specific memories associated with the song, other than just liking the sound and one of the lyrics resonating with my mood at the time (I’d just turned 30 when this song came out, and I was struggling to find a career and make some big life choices and with depression, and true to form for me, I was spending a lot of time looking backward):

“I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads/Nickels and dimes, yours and mine, did you cash in all your dreams?”

The imagery doesn’t specifically align with my own experiences — I haven’t had a mood ring since I was eight, for example — but it’s highly evocative to me, suggesting memories of your early twenties when you didn’t have much, but you didn’t have a lot of cares either, and now those times are gone, and how the hell did that happen? Those lyrics occurred to me earlier this week when I was struggling with something at work, and “Never Let You Go” has been running on an endless loop in my mind ever since.

This video isn’t terribly remarkable, aside from Stephan Jenkins being a nice-looking man — I always wanted hair like his when I was young, that thick, floppy, rockstar thing — and there are some hot ’90s babes in the background. But enjoy the song anyhow as we head into the weekend. Maybe you too remember a girl who was like a sunburn you would have liked to save…

 

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Star Wars: My Worst to Best

Some years ago, my friend Doctor Robert asked me how I would rank the various Star Wars movies. At the time, I begged off with a rueful grin and another slug of scotch. It was an impossible question for me, like being asked to choose which of the children is my favorite, or perhaps more accurately — since I was at that time trying my damnedest to believe all the individual films comprised a single unified story — like trying to pick the best chapter of a favorite novel. It was also, I feared, an unintentionally loaded question that could only stir up more rancor over the still-controversial prequel trilogy, a sore spot I was dearly sick of poking.

That was then, though. Now… well, now things are different. Let’s just say that my feelings about this series have become far more clear in recent years. And so, for anyone who cares about one grumpy old man’s highly opinionated takes on some silly movies about space wizards and their lazer swords…

(Incidentally, I know I wrote in my last post that I’ve grown weary of talking about Star Wars, and I have. But now that the “mainline saga” has supposedly come to an end with the release of Episode IX, it feels like this is the time for an overview like this. Besides… it’s less stressful to think about this than current events.)

Counting backwards from my least favorite:

11. The Force Awakens

I can hear the gasps of surprise and outrage from all the way over here. Sorry. I know many people truly enjoyed this one, and I routinely see claims that it’s as good as any of the original trilogy (OT), but… no. Not for me. Besides my usual complaints about JJ Abrams’ shortcomings as a storyteller, this film struck me as incredibly cynical in the way that it played on my generation’s nostalgia for the originals while simultaneously slapping us in the face with its depiction of our OT heroes. I’m not exaggerating when I say that TFA — as well as finding myself once again the outlier against popular opinion when it came to Star Wars — contributed to me falling into a months-long depression.

10. The Rise of Skywalker

Better than TFA, and I’ll confess that I generally enjoyed it. It even had several moments that moved me to tears (mostly involving the OT heroes, no surprise). But it’s still a JJ Abrams film with all the problems that entails, and it still revolves around the idea that the OT heroes’ struggles and victories didn’t amount to a damn thing. I didn’t like it when Palpatine was resurrected in the old Dark Empire comic-book series back in the ’90s, and I like it even less in a movie trilogy of quasi-remakes built on deconstructing the original films and recasting the old heroes as broken losers.

9. The Last Jedi

While public opinion seems to have crystallized around the notion that TLJ is the worst of the sequel trilogy, I personally think writer-director Rian Johnson did an amazing job of trying to build something interesting on the very shaky foundation left to him by TFA. I like how he redeemed and elevated Luke Skywalker in the end, as well as how he tried to redemocratize the Force and get away from the “chosen one” elitism that settled into the story with the prequels (one of George Lucas’ biggest missteps, in my opinion). Even so, I can’t say that I unreservedly liked any of the films in the sequel trilogy, and I think that all goes back to the creative decisions made before a single frame of film was shot about where the OT characters ended up following the end of their trilogy. It was just plain shitty to do that to longtime fans.

8. Attack of the Clones

Next up is the shakiest entry in the much-maligned prequel trilogy. I never have been able to untangle the mystery plot of this one, and there are moments in it that make me cringe (curiously, Threepio’s head getting grafted onto a battle droid body and changing his personality — “Die, Jedi scum!” — bothers me far more than Anakin’s thoughts on sand). But there are also many elements that I love: the ground battle between the clone army and all the crazy-ass Separatist machines, Slave-1‘s “electric guitar” bombs, the launch of the Republic fleet to the sounds of the Imperial March, the image of dozens of lightsabers powering up all across the arena on Geonosis, and even the greasy-spoon diner on Coruscant. Especially that greasy-spoon… because it just plain amuses me that there is such a place there and that Obi-Wan apparently frequents it.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

A nicely done war movie that I nevertheless rank fairly low because (a) it’s built around a plot point that nobody ever wondered about, (b) the tone is a little too grim-n-gritty for my tastes (i.e., everybody dies), (c) the fan service at the end is a little too blatant (heart-poundingly cool though it was), and (d) I can’t get past the deeply illogical conceit that Leia’s ship was hiding inside a big cruiser during the Battle of Scarif. (Leia was both royalty and a member of the Senate, and her ship was well-known as a diplomatic courier. In short, she and the Tantive IV were extremely valuable undercover assets — “You weren’t on any mercy mission this time…” — and I can’t believe the Alliance would risk either her life or her cover. In my opinion, the old NPR radio drama of Star Wars had a much more satisfying account of how she acquired the Death Star plans, and it bothers me that Rogue One retcons that version away.)

Also — and I admit that this is a meta issue and unfair to the movie itself — I learned about Carrie Fisher’s collapse that led to her death literally moments after seeing this movie with its weirdly plastic-looking simulacrum of her, when I checked my phone during the closing credits, and the association of those two events and the remembered emotions of that experience are… difficult. If not for that, perhaps I’d rank Rogue One more highly.

6. The Phantom Menace

Oh, hush. Just hear me out. If the meta experience of what happened around the time I saw Rogue One can lower that film’s rating, than surely the same thing can elevate this one’s, right? The excitement of the months and weeks leading up to TPM, the experience of standing in line to get in (no longer an issue with online ticket ordering), the uproar in the theater as the titles came up and various characters appeared… I cherish the memories of all that and those memories inform the film itself when I see it now. And in addition, I posit that the film honestly isn’t that bad, as unpopular — even heretical — as that position may be. It tells a straightforward story, it introduces us to wondrous new places (one thing about the recent sequel trilogy: I never once felt any sense of wonder with the worlds it visits; not once), and it contains two of the most thrilling scenes in the entire 11-movie series: the pod race and the final lightsaber fight between Darth Maul, Obi Wan, and Qui Gon Jinn. Plus, Liam Neeson is just cool. I’ve always wished we could’ve seen more of him.

5. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Easily my favorite of the Disney era so far, Solo is also the one with the least baggage hanging over it and the most purely fun entry in the series since 1983. The fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake, there’s no big metaphysical battle between good and evil, it’s just a swashbuckling heist picture with a coming-of-age tale overlaid on it. I was very disappointed that it didn’t do better, as I would’ve loved to have seen where it went next (I strongly suspect there was at least one sequel, if not a full trilogy, planned). Perhaps now that Disney+ appears to be the future for the franchise, a streaming series will pick up the dangling threads.

4. Revenge of the Sith

I always feel like I need to qualify or apologize for my reactions to the prequel trilogy, but with this one it’s really as simple as this: I spent the last 40 minutes or so of ROTS weeping. And George finally gave me the lava-pit fight I’d been imagining since I was eight years old.

3. Return of the Jedi

The weakest entry of the original trilogy is still above everything that’s not part of the original trilogy. Because… original trilogy. Plus, speeder bikes, the Millennium Falcon zigzagging through the rebel fleet, the Emperor taunting Luke, the space battle and flight through Death Star II (the very limit of what FX technology was capable of at that time), “I know,” and Leia going for the deck gun on Jabba’s barge. All things that just make me happy.

2. The Empire Strikes Back

Most people rank Empire as the best of the series, and I can’t disagree on objective, technical terms. It looks the best, it has the most mature story and best performances, and the whole universe seen on-screen just feels more… solid than it did before or since. I adore Empire. But when you get right down to it, there’s one I adore still more…

1. Star Wars

Always my number one. Always. The original 1977 Star Wars was the one that captured my imagination and dominated my childhood dreams, the one that kicked off the phenomenon and inspired all the variety-show sketches and low-budget rip-offs, the one that made the biggest dent on the collective American consciousness. People who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie likely know the names “Darth Vader” and “Death Star,” and this movie is the reason why. It is also the one film of the entire series that works best as a standalone story, in my opinion. All of the others are, to one degree or another, dependent on this one. Certainly they are all derivative of it. But if no other Star Wars film had ever been made, this one would still work on its own terms. And it is still the one I’m most likely to reach for when I’m in the mood to visit the galaxy far, far away…

And there you have it. Probably not many surprises here, at least not for people who’ve listened to me ramble about this stuff over a glass of whisky. Although I don’t foresee my own opinions changing much, it’s going to be interesting to see how the general wisdom on these films evolves in the coming years. I suspect that the prequels and George Lucas in general will be reevaluated against the sequel trilogy and their reputations redeemed somewhat; in fact, I’ve already seen signs of that happening. Along those lines, I also predict that fans will someday talk about all this much the way James Bond fans talk about that franchise; people will have their favorite eras and will debate the merits of each, i.e., it will come down to Lucas Era vs Disney Era, and preferences will likely depend in part on one’s age. Again, there’s already some of that going on, as the generation that grew up on the prequels displays a far different perspective on them than we older original-trilogy kids.

For me personally, I can no longer view the whole thing as one big happy story. I now realize after all these years of trying to embrace everything that I’m really primarily a fan of the original trilogy, and in particular of all the stuff that came out in the years between SW and TESB. Everything else — everything! — is, in my view, derivative of the OT and has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Which means that, for me, Star Wars will mostly be an exercise in nostalgia going forward. In other words, I’ve arrived at pretty much the same place with this that I’ve been at with Star Trek for many years now. And isn’t it interesting that I reached that point with both franchises as a result of films made by JJ Abrams? He is become Death, the Destroyer of Franchises. If I hear he’s been assigned to do the long-rumored Highlander remake next, I think it’ll be time for me to go live on a mountaintop somewhere…

One final thought: I think Star Wars might be finished as a movie series. There is still talk of a new trilogy in development that’s unrelated to the Skywalker Saga, but after all the truly vicious fan response to the recent films — and even going back to the prequels — I’ll believe it when I see it. Instead, I think Disney is going to take the safer route of producing SW television shows for its streaming platform, Disney+. I think The Mouse will find it less risky, as well as easier to satisfy all the splintered segments of fandom, to produce a number of limited-run, relatively cheap TV shows than to bet everything on occasional, very expensive feature films. And you know, I think that might be better for the content, too… a wider possible range of subject matter and tone, and maybe even the possibility of more inventiveness and originality, instead of stories always constrained by the need to fit the formula of “a Star Wars movie.” We’ll see, I guess. The Mandalorian has been a success, but the next one might not be.

In the meantime, we’ll always have the original trilogy…

 

 

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