Parting Words

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“I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about. … at my core, I think we’re going to be OK. We just have to fight for it, we have to work for it and not take it for granted.”

— Barack Obama at the conclusion of his final press conference as President of the United States,

January 18, 2017

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Letter to the Outgoing President

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A couple weeks back, I did something I’ve never done before: I sent an email to the President of the United States.

I didn’t expect a response. Honestly, I didn’t even expect that he would see it with his own eyes, as opposed to some anonymous staffer. Nevertheless, as I contemplated the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency, I experienced a sense of personal connection and impending loss that was unlike anything I’ve ever felt for an an outgoing president. I felt compelled to reach out and say a few things to the man.

History and hindsight will be the ultimate judges of whether Obama was a good president, and what lasting impact his presidency may have. Personally, I think the future is probably going to look upon him quite favorably. (If anyone reading this happens to disagree, well, in the immortal words of The Dude, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.) I won’t pretend I wasn’t occasionally frustrated or disappointed by him. He flat-out failed to deliver on one of his campaign promises that meant a lot to me: Our extra-national gulag at Guantanamo Bay remains in operation, its handful of remaining inmates trapped in a legal Phantom Zone and the very existence of the thing a blot on America’s moral character. But given the resistance he faced in Congress to quite literally everything he proposed, I really can’t lay the blame for this one at his feet. Also, I wish he’d been more effective at selling his administration’s achievements and countering the other side’s non-stop avalanche of disinformation that’s led to some people actually thinking, among other things, that “Obamacare” and the ACA are two different things. But again, that’s not all on him. The Democrats in general have failed on this point. Finally, I wish he hadn’t been so doggedly determined to keep reaching across the aisle when the Republicans made it very clear from the very beginning that they were not, under any circumstances, going to work with him. There were times when he looked like Charlie Brown chasing after that damned football, with all of us knowing that Republican Lucy was just going to jerk it away and send him flying through the air again. It was embarrassing, frankly… and watching good progressive ideas get whittled away compromise by compromise (and still failing to pass) was pretty damn infuriating. But it was his belief in the inherent goodness of people, and in their willingness to listen to a rational appeal — his optimism that he could bridge the partisan divides that had opened up during the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations — that drew me to him in the first place. As satisfying as it might have been to hear him tell Mitch McConnell to go screw himself, that’s not the man I originally voted for.

In the end, Obama did not change the country as much as many of us hoped he would. Partisan tribalism is worse than ever, everybody is pissed off about everything, and “post-racial America” turned out to be a cruel fantasy. Indeed, his mere existence in the Oval Office seemed to draw out the very worst elements of this country from whatever dank hole in which they’d been hibernating. There’s no question in my mind that the incoming administration is the product, at least in part, of a backlash against whatever social progress the Obama administration did manage to foster. And all of that is immensely disappointing. I really hoped eight years ago that we were more evolved than that as a nation, and I can’t help feeling like we let him down, not the other way round, because we just weren’t ready for what he represented. But no matter what happens in the next four years, the Obama administration will always be a turning point in this country’s history. He was the first non-white president, and nothing is ever going to change that; I’m still proud of him for that achievement, and proud of this nation for taking a step forward by electing him. I hope I live long enough to see another such step forward, whether it’s another person of color or a woman, or perhaps even both.

I’m proud of him for much more than being an interesting statistic, though. Of the four presidents I’ve seen in my adult life — indeed all the presidents of my lifetime — Barack Obama is the one I most admire as a human being. His intellect, his sense of humor, his down-to-earth decency (so wonderfully evidenced by the photo above)… the fact that his administration remained scandal-free for eight years, that I didn’t have to make any excuses for him as I so often have for the last Democratic president… his dedication to his wife and children, the very embodiment of family values… and the dignity and unflappably cool head he so consistently showed in the face of unprecedented disrespect and obstruction from his political opponents… by all those measures, I would say Obama has been an extraordinary president. And I’m going to miss him.

Thanks, Obama. Sincerely.

 

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It Was One Movie…

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in "Star Wars"

“We’d done this little low-budget film. They’d even flown us economy to our location in London to save money, and we lived off a per diem that came nowhere near the vicinity of luxurious. We’d done a cool little off-the-radar movie directed by a bearded guy from Modesto. A thing like that wasn’t going to make people want to play with a doll of you, was it?

It was one movie. It wasn’t supposed to do what it did — nothing was supposed to do that.  Nothing ever had. Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it.

Had I known it was going to make that loud of a noise, I would’ve dressed better for those talk shows and definitely would’ve argued against that insane hair… ”

— Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist

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Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A recent discussion with a friend regarding what I disliked about the film Man of Steel led to us reminiscing about the Superman comics we’d grown up with, which led in turn to him recommending this collection of stories from the 1980s that I somehow missed back in the day.

Briefly, in 1986, after decades of publication and hundreds of issues, DC Comics announced plans to reboot Superman… to toss everything that had come before and start over at issue #1, the destruction of Krypton, Ma and Pa Kent finding the baby in the crashed spaceship, the whole thing. But before that new series debuted, the publisher saw an opportunity that’s rare in ongoing comic-book titles, the chance for closure, to provide a definitive ending to the classic era of the Man of Steel… or, as he was once known, the Man of Tomorrow.

The two-part tale that lends its title to this collection, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (originally published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583), is flat-out brilliant. Written by comic legend Alan Moore (Watchmen) and structured in the form of a flashback (from the futuristic year of 1997!) narrated by Lois Lane, the “last” Superman story tells of Kal-El’s old enemies and allies coming together for one final confrontation, with fatal consequences for many of them, including — apparently — Superman himself. While there are plenty of deaths and an overall elegaic tone, the story never gets too heavy, and it ends on an absolutely perfect note, quite literally with a wink and a smile. For older fans who loved the Superman of an earlier era, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, nostalgic conclusion. The art by Curt Swann and George Perez is perfect as well, clean and bright, a touch old-fashioned perhaps but very pleasing, and exactly the way I remember Superman comics looking when I was a kid.

Rounding out this trade paperback are two additional stories by Moore that are unrelated but have a similar tone and theme to “Whatever Happened.” In “The Jungle Line,” originally published in DC Comics Presents #85 with art by the great Al Williamson, Superman has been infected by an extra-terrestrial fungus. Delusional and not trusting himself to fly safely, he drives south, intending to die well away from anyone who might be hurt by his super-powered death throes. But the jungle he finds himself in is home to another denizen of the DC universe, the hideous but kindly Swamp Thing, who makes telepathic contact with the stranger in his realm and tries to help him fight the ravaging hallucinations.

Finally, in “For the Man Who Has Everything” from Superman Annual #11 (art by Dave Gibbons), the Man of Steel is held captive by a telepathic alien plant that grants the illusion of the victim’s greatest desire… in this case, a “normal” life on an unexploded Krypton. While his friends Batman and Wonder Woman fight to save him in the real world, Kal-El comes to realize the “life” he’s living is nothing but illusion…

Taken together, these four stories all form an interesting meditation on the core of the classic Superman’s character: his desire for a normal human life as a husband and father balanced against his superhuman nobility and sense of duty. Unlike more modern superhero stories, which would present these ideas with clenched jaws and grim self-loathing, these tales have a lighter touch, more humor and optimism, and a sense that, while Superman may wish he had a different life, he’s not all that unhappy with the one he’s got, because he’s serving a purpose. It’s a refreshing change from the modern superhero idiom, and a lot of fun to read.

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In Memoriam: Carrie Fisher

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Millions of voices suddenly cried out in sadness… and were suddenly silent… something terrible has happened.

— Random Facebook comment

Except… we haven’t been silent, have we? The outpouring of condolences, remembrances, and genuinely heartfelt grief at the passing of Carrie Fisher has been truly remarkable, even after a year that claimed such beloved public figures as David Bowie and Prince. Even now, nearly three weeks after the fact, I’m still seeing comments, blog posts, and memes about her death… and her life. People are using her likeness for Facebook profile pics and Tumblr avatars. And speculation about how  Disney/Lucasfilm plans to proceed with upcoming Star Wars films without her has grown so intense that Disney actually felt compelled to issue a statement on Friday that they have no intentions to create a digital stand-in for her, as they did for a brief scene in Rogue One.

One of the most surprising aspects of all this, at least to me, has been the little-c catholicism of Carrie’s mourners, who range far beyond the expected legions of Star Wars fans to include a lot of people who couldn’t care less about the galaxy far, far away. But of course there was a lot more to Carrie Fisher than just Star Wars. She appeared in 40-something feature films, some of which are non-Star Wars classics in their own right (The Blues Brothers, When Harry Met Sally… ); she wrote four novels and three works of memoir, all of which were best-sellers, as well as a successful one-woman stage show, Wishful Drinking; she was a respected screenwriter, having adapted one of her own novels — Postcards from the Edge — into a feature film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, as well as doing uncredited “script doctor” rewrites on who-knows-how-many films, including the Star Wars prequels; and she was a vocal advocate for causes relating to mental health and drug addiction, the twin demons she herself battled throughout her life. In recent years, she also had a lot to say about body shaming and how our culture (especially fanboy culture) doesn’t allow women to age with grace, which won her even more admirers. And yet… it was a film role she took on when she was only 19 years old for which she’s ultimately going to be remembered, a surreal and ironic fact that Carrie was well aware of. If you’ve read her memoirs or seen her interviews, it’s plain that she spent a lot of time struggling to figure out where Leia ended and Carrie began, and vice versa. It’s an interesting question for any actor who is so strongly associated with a single role, but it’s also one worth asking of fans: Who exactly are we mourning, Carrie Fisher or Princess Leia Organa?

I fell in love with Princess Leia when I was seven years old. Big deal, right? I think it’s safe to say that most men (and not a few women) in my general age cohort would say the same thing. The character’s prominence in the coming-of-age of Generation X is an utter cliche at this point. (Can you believe it’s been 20 years since that Friends episode about Ross’ gold bikini sex fantasies?) But just because an idea is hackneyed doesn’t make it untrue. Leia was my imaginary girlfriend — well, one of them, anyway — for most of my childhood and adolescence.

That was Leia, though. I met Carrie Fisher in 2012. The occasion was an award presentation for her mental-health advocacy, followed by a book signing. And while she couldn’t avoid discussing her role in Star Wars during the course of the evening — I imagine not a day passed when she didn’t talk about it, in one way or another — that wasn’t the focus of this event, and I was under no illusion that the person up there on that stage was the fictional princess of my youth. Her voice was wrong for one thing; age and cigarettes had changed it, roughened it and given it a phlegmy undercurrent. She was smart, sarcastic, and deadly quick with her wit, just like Leia. But she was also self-deprecating, a bit rambling, a bit vulgar, a bit fragile. Kind of weird, to be honest. Not in an unappealing way, just in a way that was very unlike Leia. I found myself liking her, and wishing I could spend a lot of time hanging out with her and hearing all of her wild stories three or four times each.

Later, when I stood in front of her while she autographed my copy of Postcards from the Edge, I was struck by how tiny she was. In some weird way I still can’t put my finger on, she reminded me of my mom. I don’t remember what I said to her, but I know I was trying not to say the obvious Star Wars fanboy things. I must’ve mentioned my own fiction-writing ambitions, based on the kindly encouraging words she scribbled in my book. But then she looked up at me with those deep brown eyes that were so familiar to me from hundreds of viewings of the Holy Trilogy, and I saw them glittering with the same warm, mischievous energy they displayed in Return of the Jedi when she throws Han Solo’s infamous “I know” back at him… I fell in love all over again.

I’d met quite a few celebrities by that time, and largely gotten over being starstruck. I rarely have a problem talking to actors I’ve admired since I was a kid. But in that moment, I became hopelessly tongue-tied. Because suddenly after an evening of listening to Carrie, I was looking at Leia. She lived inside Carrie after all, just as Carrie lived in her… just as somewhere inside me there’s a seven-year-old boy who dreams of heroically swinging across a chasm with her in my arms, and a ten-year-old boy who wants a girl to look at me the way Leia looked at Han in the carbon-freeze chamber, and a thirteen-year-old boy who… well, I’ll leave that one right there. Ross wasn’t the only one who responded to that damn bikini. (Although, if you want to know the honest truth, I’ve always thought she was at her prettiest in her snow-bunny outfit from Empire. Call me weird.)

The point is, in the end, Carrie and Leia were very hard to parse out from each other. And I can honestly say, sincerely, without intending any sort of stalkerish overtone, that I loved both of them, fiercely.

I finally got around to seeing Rogue One on December 23rd, a week after the movie opened… the day Carrie Fisher had a massive heart attack on an airplane midway between London and LA. Anne and I had both shed a few tears at the movie’s end and were feeling a little raw as the house lights came up. (If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand.) While the closing credits were still rolling, and the familiar Star Wars title music still thundered through the theater, she pulled out her phone and called up Facebook to see what had been going on while we were in the galaxy far, far away. The first thing she ran across was the news about Carrie. It was totally unexpected, and it hit me like hard piledriver punch to the gut.

At that point, details were sketchy and people were trying to be optimistic, but to borrow a certain well-known catchphrase from a certain space-opera franchise, I had a bad feeling about it. Somehow I just knew. Quite literally moments after seeing Carrie’s digitally resurrected youthful self on the movie screen, I was confronted with the certainty that we were going to lose her, if not that day, then very soon. I don’t mind admitting that I went to the theater’s restroom, locked myself into a stall, and had a brief, sobbing breakdown. Because Carrie Fisher wasn’t just some actress to me, not just another celebrity I feel compelled to eulogize on my blog because I liked their work when I was a kid. She wasn’t even merely a childhood crush, although she certainly was that, and a middle-aged crush as well. She was a charming, complicated mess of a human being whom I’d met and spoken with and responded to and felt genuine affection for. She felt as real to me as members of my own family. As my friend Jaren put it, she was like that cool girlfriend your older brother had once, the one you’ve kept tabs on all these years because you just couldn’t help yourself.

And now she’s gone.

I’m sure that someday I’ll be able to watch Star Wars or Rogue One or any of her movies again without thinking that. But for now… my princess, my Carrie, is gone. And I feel a cold twinge inside whenever the thought occurs to me.

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If Our Democracy Is to Work the Way It Should…

President Obama’s Farewell Address tonight had a number of memorable passages as he tried to put an epilogue on the past eight years, but to me there were none more salient or moving than his words about race, reflexive partisanship, and the tendency to demonize “the other”:

…if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.

 

We have to pay attention and listen.

 

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.

 

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.

 

So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

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Friday Evening Videos (New Year’s Eve Edition): “Don’t Stop Believin'”

Oh stop. I can feel your eyes rolling from all the way over here.

I’m very well aware that this song has as many detractors as fans, and that it and Journey in general are routinely derided as “soulless corporate rock” (whatever the hell that means). I don’t care, and I’m not interested in debating it. Not now, not on the final night of this year, above all others. From the deaths of Bowie, Prince, and Princess frickin’ Leia to that god-awful endless election (I think everyone, no matter which side you were on, can agree that the election was a shit-show of historic proportions), 2016 has left me most definitely not in the mood for a debate. About anything. Here, at the end of this annus horribilis, more than ever, I’m missing my youth and the boundless possibility it seemed to contain, the certainty I used to have that everything would just somehow turn out all right. I’m exhausted, and I’m testy.

If you don’t like “Don’t Stop Believin’,” well… that’s your concern, I guess, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that. Personally, it’s always been one of my favorites, going back to the days when I listened to it from a cheap K-Tel collection on a beat-up portable cassette player while I read comic books in our haystack. Even before I had any real understanding of what the lyrics were about, I responded to the sound of the song in that ineffable, near-mystical way that you simply do with some pieces of music. I loved the piano opening and that dramatic rising guitar thing following the first verse, and the soaring vocals that are both easy to sing along with and entirely beyond the range of most normal humans. Now that I’m older, I love the goofy optimism at the core of the song’s lyrics.

I’ve read some counter-intuitive arguments that this is actually a depressing song, that the story told by the lyrics is one of people consoling themselves while on a tawdry and unsatisfying quest for love. Or at least for sex. I guess that’s one way to read it. It’s not mine. I see this song as an ode to the indomitable human tendency to keep trying, to keep reaching, to keep hoping, in spite of disappointment and even though time and the culture around us and the world itself just keeps moving indifferently forward. As we crawl from the smoking crater of 2016 into the uncertain landscape of 2017, that’s a message I need to hear.  Maybe you do too.

I’m not going to bother with the usual historical background on this one, other than noting that this performance is from 1981, the year the song itself was released.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Friday Evening Videos (Bonus Edition): “Father Christmas”

It’s a little after midnight as I write this, and outside the rain that’s been falling all day has finally turned to snow and the world  is growing quiet and indistinct. Anne went to bed several hours ago, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Even though I’ve been relatively cheerful this holiday season — a nice change! — I find that I’m very tired tonight, emotionally worn out. I think we all agree that 2016 has been a real drag, and I think we’re all eager to see it finished. Also, I’m worried tonight… about Carrie Fisher, my beloved space princess who had a heart attack on an airplane yesterday even as I was watching the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One… and about my cat Evinrude, who’s not been feeling well today but can’t tell me what’s wrong. Fitting, then, that the song I’ve had running through my head for much of the day is Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.”

You may have heard that Lake died a couple weeks ago, on December 6, following a battle with cancer. I was rather pleased that many of the online remembrances of him used this song, rather than something he did with the prog-rock band he co-founded, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. “Father Christmas” is often remembered as one of ELP’s, but in reality, Greg wrote and recorded it as a solo project. It was released in 1975 and reached number two on the UK charts. I don’t know if it charted here, but I remember hearing it on my classic-rock radio station in high school, and thinking it was lovely. It’s got a melancholy, world-weary tone, but it ultimately ends on a hopeful note, which for me is a perfect holiday song.

The version of it I’m going to present tonight isn’t a video per se; it’s a recording of a live performance at St. Bride’s Church in the City of London, back in 2011. Lake and his fellow musicians are accompanied by the church choir; the guy playing flute is none other than Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull.

“I wish you a hopeful Christmas,
I wish you a brave new year…
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.”

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Compartmentalizing the Star Wars Saga

[Ed. note: This entry was begun over a week ago, before I had seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Some of my thinking here is no longer strictly relevant — and of course all of it is self-absorbed navelgazing — but I’ve decided to finish and publish it anyhow.]

In the wake of my last entry, a friend of mine asked why people make such a big deal out of Star Wars movies instead of taking them for what they are, either enjoying them or not, and just moving on when you don’t. Well, those weren’t his exact words, but that was the gist of what he was asking. And by “people,” I’m pretty sure he meant “me.”

I didn’t have a good answer for him, and I told him so. I really don’t know why these movies affect me the way they do, both good and bad… why they’re so important to me that my unhappiness with a sequel made 40 years after the fact sent me into an emotional tailspin. I could say what I used to say back in my college days, back when my buddies were all leaving to serve their two-year Mormon missions and it seemed critical to have my own glib answer to questions of spirituality: that the original trilogy was the closest thing to religion I’ve ever known. (This was long before those folks in the UK turned “Jedi” into an official religious designation; I dropped the idea after that happened, because it no longer seemed very funny, or very true.) I could also tell you that I’d constructed so much of my identity around being a Star Wars fan — something I stubbornly clung to even during the years when half the planet was renouncing their affection for the franchise because the prequels disappointed them so badly —  that when I was finally confronted with a Star Wars film I didn’t like (but which, perversely, so many others did like), the cognitive dissonance was so severe it felt like part of me was being torn away in a cataclysmic event, like an iceberg calving off a glacier. I could tell you these things. But unless you have similar feelings, there’s no way I can really make you understand them. If movies are just movies to you, if Star Wars isn’t that big a deal to you, then I can’t explain why they’re more than that for me, or why I am so damn dramatic about it all.

So I didn’t have an answer to my friend’s question. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about the core of what he was asking: Why can’t I just shrug off The Force Awakens, or any other Star Wars movie that doesn’t work for me? (As an aside, why can’t the prequel haters get over their disillusionment, too?) And the thing I keep coming back to is… all the Star Wars novels and comic books I’ve read.

Consider: in the nearly 40 years since the original Star Wars film (I still have trouble thinking of it as “A New Hope”), there have been quite literally hundreds of published stories set in that galaxy far, far away… everything from the Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s and ’80s to Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (the very first spin-off novel), up through the explosion of comics and novels produced in the ’90s and early 2000s that came to be called the Expanded Universe. And that’s not counting the various video games, animated television shows, newspaper strips, and Force only knows what else. I’ve read quite a few of those stories (though not all, and probably not even a majority of them… hey, I do have other interests, and only so much time!) Some of them, the best of them, capture the feeling of the movies and the sound of the characters’ voices so perfectly that they feel like part of the movies themselves. Others are utterly terrible, both as novels and as Star Wars stories. Some of them feel as if they were written for another franchise entirely and just had the Star Wars character names plugged into them; you wonder if the authors of those have ever even seen a Star Wars movie. And honestly, the vast majority of these stories, like everything else in life, are simply mediocre. But the interesting thing is… I’ve never had any big emotional or psychological struggle with any of them. I enjoy the ones I enjoy, the better ones become “official” in my mind, or what the kids on Tumblr refer to as “headcanon,” and the others are quickly forgotten. No big deal. So what’s the difference when it comes to the movies?

Well, simply put, the movies are harder to dismiss because they feel more “real” to me. Partly that’s because it’s the way George Lucas wanted it. When the EU started getting too big in the ’90s and contradictions and retcons were becoming a problem, Uncle George (or at least his minions in the licensing division of Lucasfilm) let the word out that the movies were to be considered the primary canon, and everything else may or may not be “official” depending on what happened in future film projects. In other words, George wasn’t bound to follow or use any idea established in the EU materials. Disney has reinforced this notion by decanonizing everything published prior to its acquisition of Lucasfilm and rebranding it under the “Star Wars Legends” label. (Interestingly, a lot of ideas from the disavowed EU appeared in one form or another in The Force Awakens, and will probably creep into Rogue One too, so perhaps Disney’s motive was less about clearing the slate than justifying their exploitation of existing material.) All the new tie-in materials moving forward are to be considered canon and are part of the timeline, an idea that I have some problems with… more on that another time.

Anyhow, my point here, at long last, is that I’m increasingly thinking I need to do with Star Wars movies what I manage to do quite easily with the books and comics, and compartmentalize all of them in my mind. I’ve been doing it with the Star Trek franchise for years. I love the first four Trek films that featured the original TOS cast; those are the “real” ones for me. Moving on, I like parts of Star Treks V and VI, although overall I have issues with those films; they are not part of my personal canon, but I don’t refuse to watch them. I didn’t care much for any of the four films starring the Next Generation cast, and in fact I’ve only seen a couple of them once. I’ve mostly forgotten them at this point, and that’s just fine. Meanwhile, I think my feelings about the post-reboot JJ-Trek films are pretty widely known — they don’t exist in my world. And I’ve got to start doing the same with Star Wars movies, too. I must learn to do what my friend suggested in the conversation that started all this: like what I like and ignore the rest.

That might seem so obvious as to not even bear mentioning, let alone writing a thousand-word blog entry about. But to date, I haven’t done that with Star Wars. I haven’t been able to. Even though I concede the prequels had a lot of problems, I basically accepted them… because they were Star Wars movies, and that lent them a certain authenticity and gravity by default. But I never had any obligation to view them that way… and indeed, many people did not and chose to pretend they never happened. It’s obvious to me now that I’ve got to do what everybody else has been doing since The Phantom Menace. For my own sanity, I’ve got to start imagining every new Star Wars movie from this point forward as a sort of new Expanded Universe… just supplements to George Lucas’ original saga that I can pick and choose from at will.

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Rogue One: I’m Not Feeling It

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We’re only a couple days away from the opening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which is the first of several planned “standalone” or “anthology” films that take place in the Star Wars universe, but are incidental to the mainline saga. In other words, this movie and the “Star Wars Stories” that will follow exist in parallel to the seven previous Star Wars movies, but are not “episodes” of the story being told in those other seven. The idea is to fill in the narrative gaps and expand on the universe we’ve seen in the numbered episodes… fleshing out backstories and exploring ideas that the episodes don’t have time to deal with. And of course, to keep Star Wars-branded product in the theaters (and the toy stores) each and every year for the foreseeable future, thus making a Death Star full of money for the new galactic overlords at Disney.

The movie is getting very positive advance reviews (including, reportedly, the approval of George Lucas himself, which may not matter to a lot of Star Wars fans, but it still matters to me), and many of my friends already have their tickets for showtimes this weekend. I, on the other hand…

I’ll be honest, I was more excited by the teaser trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 than by anything to do with Rogue One, and that freaks me out a little. I mean… it’s Star Wars, man! Star Wars! Those two words have provoked an almost Pavlovian response in me for pretty much my entire life, ever since I was a wee lad doodling TIE fighters in the margins of my school papers. I should be bouncing off the walls right now, vibrating with excitement for my imminent return to the galaxy far, far away, just as I was for last year’s entry, The Force Awakens, and for each of the prequels before that, and for Empire and Return of the Jedi thirty-some years ago. But… I’m just not.

To be fair, there are elements in the latest Rogue One trailer that I find intriguing. I like the glimpse of day-to-day life under Imperial domination (literally under it, as a star destroyer hovers in the sky, throwing its ominous shadow over the city). I like the fact that this story is about ordinary galactic citizens for a change, instead of crazy old wizards and magical bloodlines. And the scenes of messy, close-quarters urban fighting with a scout walker clomping through narrow alleyways are something we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie, so there’s that. However — and I really can’t convey how much it pains me to say this — there’s nothing in any of the trailers that really makes my heart go zing.

Part of the problem is my lack of interest in the movie’s central premise. If you don’t know or haven’t figured it out from the trailers, Rogue One tells the story of the rebel spies mentioned in the opening of the original Star Wars film (I guess I’m finally going to have to give in and start referring to that one as Episode IV or A New Hope like everyone else does, for the sake of clarity). Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I myself have never given a second thought to those guys or how they actually got their hands on the secret Death Star plans that Princess Leia was carrying at the beginning of the whole franchise. Not once. As I put it in a recent Facebook conversation, this movie aims to “explain a maguffin that no one has ever questioned or wondered about in any way.” Remember the midichlorians in The Phantom Menace, and how baffled, if not downright angry, everybody was that George Lucas felt it necessary to quantify something we’d always just accepted, i.e., the Force? The midichlorian thing was one scene. Rogue One is an entire movie built around the same kind of thinking. As my friend Kelly put it during that same Facebook discussion, “What if someone made a movie called Ugarte in which we see the Peter Lorre character from Casablanca meet up with the two couriers who have the letters of transit?” Has anyone ever desired such a film? I know I haven’t. It’s not that you couldn’t make a good movie from that bit of background; it’s that there really isn’t any need to.

I think Disney’s plans for an annual Star Wars release are also a factor in my indifferent mood. A new Star Wars movie used to be a major event — the release dates for the original trilogy, the Special Editions, and The Phantom Menace (although not so much the other two prequels, oddly) all stand out in my mind as significant temporal landmarks that I still tend to use when I’m navigating through my memories — and those events were years in the making. (Literally.) You had time for the anticipation to build. But Rogue One arriving so soon after Episode VII, and knowing that Episode VIII will be out only 12 months from now, and then another standalone only a year after that, and so on and so on, has already rendered the Star Wars franchise no big deal, the same way the Marvel superhero movies — which Disney also owns — are no big deal. Now, I love those Marvel flicks, but I don’t get especially excited about them or eagerly anticipate them. Frankly, I take them for granted. I know it doesn’t matter if any individual entry in the series is bad, or if I don’t get around to seeing it in a theater, because there’s always another one on the way (three of them, in fact, in 2017). We’re only two movies into the Disney era of Star Wars, and I’m already feeling the same way about this franchise, and that’s a drag.

Really, though, my biggest problem with Rogue One is the lingering hangover from last year’s Star Wars film.

This entry is already running long, so I’ll spare my Loyal Readers a laundry list of all the specific issues I had with The Force Awakens. Let’s just say that I didn’t think it was a very good movie, I don’t think it continued the saga in a good way, and it ultimately did something no other Star Wars movie has ever done: It made me feel old and out of touch and sad. In fact — and I know this is going to sound ridiculous and overly dramatic, but it’s true — I’ve been struggling against depression for most of the past year, never entirely falling into The Pit, but always conscious of a black shadow lurking just at the edges of my peripheral vision. And while there have been a lot of contributing factors, everything from Prince and Bowie dying to the election, I’m pretty sure the triggering event was that damned movie. After 15 years, I finally understand the intense reaction so many people had to the prequel trilogy: disapproval, disillusionment, and a nagging sense of having been played for a fool that gradually festers into genuine anger about the whole damn thing.

Honestly, I’ve spent the last year wondering if I’m done with Star Wars. Moving forward, I mean. Nothing is ever going to take the original trilogy away from me. I’ve always said the “raped my childhood” stuff we used to hear in response to the prequels was asinine, overblown pearl-clutching, and I still feel that way. I truly don’t want to become one of those fans. And I know that I’m already dangerously close to sounding like Grampa Simpson bitching that everything’s gone to hell because the Damn Kids aren’t doing things the way we did ’em back in my day. But I’m no longer sure that Star Wars has much to say to me… or, for that matter, is even interested in speaking to me in the post-Lucas era. And that has been — and continues to be — very, very difficult for me to wrap my head around. Frankly, it’s been pretty painful. Like losing one’s faith in religion, I imagine. I hold out some flicker of hope that Rogue One might redeem the franchise for me (although next year’s Episode VIII will be the true make-or-break point). But I don’t feel much urgency to find out. I fear the emotions I’ll go through if it’s also a disappointment, I guess.

Oh, I will see it…. eventually. But I know I’ll be walking into the theater with a sense of wariness when I do…

 

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