Thank you NPR, John Williams, and you too George Lucas

When Star Wars Episode 1 (or Episode minus-2, if you’re an unrepentant purist curmudgeon as I am), “The Phantom Menace” was in theatrical release, I did not go see it. Neither did I take in “Attack of the Clones” when it opened at the local multiplex. I have, since, seen enough bits and pieces of both films on cable TV to know what they’re about, and also to feel content in my choice to put the price of the cinema tickets to other use. (If you’re wondering, I did see all three “original” SW entries on the big screen, when they were first released.)

Now “Revenge of the Sith” is newly out, to high praise and, not surprisingly, broken box office records. The reviews are generally kinder than they were for “Menace” and “Clones” but I’m still not inspired to have mine be one of the “butts in a seat” that the movie industry so desperately courts with its blockbuster productions. Many folks I know have already seen it; many of those went to the Wednesday midnight showing so they could be among the very first to say they did see it. (I don’t like to stand in line for anything, so rarely will I voluntarily put myself in such a situation; I can’t begin to imagine camping out days or weeks ahead of time for the privilege! That’s just me; I attend a film showing simply to enjoy the experience in that private place between mind and heart. Whether that’s a day or a week or even a month after its release is immaterial.) I imagine that over the next little while I’ll be asked what I thought of the movie; I’ll answer that I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet, and that will put the kibosh on that conversation. I’m willing to bet a small sum that at least a few of the people who ask, and who get my answer, will then wonder “Gee, what’s wrong with him?!” I’m willing to make that wager because sometimes they wonder the question out loud.

That’s OK, though. It’s their choice to go, my choice to pass. But it’s become a little habit of mine, especially when I find myself going against the flow, to look inward and examine what it is I’m really feeling about the choice I’m making. It’s very easy to make snap judgments. One such might go something like, “I’m not going to see this movie because everybody else is going, and I don’t want to be one of the crowd.” Or, “I’m not going to give my ten dollars to George Lucas because he’s just being a hack now and he should’ve let it go after the third film.” Or a dozen others. The very cool thing about feeling such a judgment rising up inside is that, if I choose, I can step back from the emotion and ask myself questions about it. Not “why am I feeling this or that” – feelings simply are. But rather, “Why do I think George Lucas is a hack?” or “Why do I believe going to a full theater makes me one of a crowd?” Questions that have nothing to do with Mr. Lucas or big bunches of people, questions that have solely and simply to do with me and what’s going on inside me. Because, after all, who can know me better than me?

So ever since the hype about “Revenge” began seriously to push its way into the collective cultural consciousness – maybe for the past two or three weeks, as the Hollywood machine went into high gear – I’ve been alternately wishing everyone would shut the hell up about the film and asking myself why my feelings are as discontented as they are.

Such musings often turn up more than one avenue of inquiry, more than one answer. One such is very easily come by, because it’s an old friend who has taken up such long and ingrained residence that evicting it is a similarly long and incremental process. Simply put, even despite the very settled emotional place I wrote from here regarding an Elfquest movie, I’m still capable of envy – that “old friend” I mentioned a moment ago. I envy George Lucas his success, that’s all. There’s a saying that old habits die hard. Actually old habits don’t die at all… but they can be transformed into new and different habits. It takes time and effort, but it can be done. Envy doesn’t have nearly the choke-hold on my beliefs, my sense of self, that it once did – but its echoes are still with me, and they still whisper that without a movie, Elfquest – and I – must be failures, right?

(Wrong. But I want to stay with “Revenge” in this blog, so…)

Another part of the puzzle of why I’ve avoided the “new” Star Wars films has to do with a strong disinterest in the characters and the storylines. OK, that’s fair game for a question: Why am I disinterested? (Which itself leads to another: Should I be interested? The answer, of course, is no. But I enjoy getting at a better understanding of my own self, so I always try to pursue “the next question.” Thank you for that, Ted Sturgeon.)

This morning I was tuned in to National Public Radio as I often am, and up came the familiar opening fanfare to the Star Wars theme, signaling yet more coverage of the new film. I reached for the station-seek button; the host announced an interview with John Williams; I decided to stick with the program. As much as I was ambivalent at best about the film, I do enjoy hearing composers speak about their experiences in the trade. So for the next fifteen minutes I listened to Mr. Williams talk about how he got started, how and why he made the decision to score the original “Star Wars” film in the lush, romantic, fully orchestrated style of Erich Korngold and Max Steiner. As he spoke, I remembered how I had felt that opening day in 1977 when, by pure chance, Wendy and I walked into the first showing at a theater in Boston; when, after the lights had gone down and there were a few moments of strange, dark silence, that first cosmic chord boomed through our bones. As John Williams spoke about his decision to give each character his or her own theme, I remembered the music behind Luke Skywalker as he gazed into the double sunset after the deaths of his adoptive aunt and uncle. I recalled the swelling theme behind Yoda’s raising the sunken X-wing fighter from the swamp. And who could forget the first martial notes of what has become known as Darth Vader’s march? It was all so fresh.

Then Mr. Williams talked about the new film, and how – since the ending of this movie must dovetail into the beginning of the original first – he had wanted to rework those now-classic themes to give viewers hints of what was coming. (Even though we already know.) The example he played was for the young Anakin Skywalker; it was like a hopeful mirror-image inversion of Darth Vader’s dark musical signature.

And that’s when it struck me, the reason behind my disinterest in the “prequel trilogy.” The whole hullabaloo is nothing more than the biggestretcon that science fiction and the movies have ever seen!

If you’ve not heard the term before, “retcon” is a shorthand for “retroactive continuity.” It’s what prequels are all about. It means, given a particular story, going into that story’s past, and making up more stuff that will explain or lead into or fit into the existing tale.

(Retcon has been used – and abused – in comics for years. The classic example involves Captain America: Cap’s adventures – and his comic book title – petered out after World War II and the Nazi threat ended. The character appeared briefly in the early 1950s as a “Commie hunter” during the beginnings of the cold war. In 1963 he was reborn after another long absence… but there was, some writers thought later, a glitch. According to the ’60s story, Cap was frozen in suspended animation at the end of World War II and thus out of the picture until nearly 20 years had passed. But if that were true, he could not have been around in the 1950s. Who, then, was the “other” Captain America? Answering that and questions like it – sometimes with a hammer and a shoehorn – came to be known as retcon. It’s what led DC Comics to their “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” It can be done well, but when it’s not, it smacks of artificiality and contrivance. Retcon itself is not a judgment; it simply is.)

(Wendy asked me, when I mentioned all this to her, if I then considered “Wolfrider” – the 12-part series that she wrote about Cutter’s sire Bearclaw – to be retcon. I answered honestly that I did since it was, if not actually created then certainly expanded upon well after the telling in 1979 of the original tale of Bearclaw and Madcoil. And I think “Wolfrider” is a superb story – but even it had to stretch a bit to accommodate a wee glitch that pre-existed its telling. I’ll leave finding that as an exercise for the reader.)

So the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy is an explanation of how the original trilogy came to be. It’s retcon. And like most retcon, I don’t care about it.

See, I was wowed by the original first movie; it could have stood forever on its own. “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” weren’t necessary, but they did write finis to conflicts that were set up in the first film, and aside from the phosphorescent ending and really annoying Ewoks, they told a satisfyingly complete story. The end.

But George Lucas decided more was needed and, hey, it’s his universe and his money and he’s going to do what he wants. He’s said as much. He’s a consummate ficchanozz. (This is a wonderful Italian dialect word, the spelling of which I’ve butchered, which means “someone who can’t leave anything alone” – it’s pronounced FEEK-a-NOSS. Have fun with it. We do.) He decided to have Greedo shoot first. He added bits, took snippets out of the original trilogy. He predicted he would make twelve films, then nine, now six… unless that changes again. It’s his party and he’ll scrye if he wants to.

But it’s all stuff that hold no interest for me. I don’t buy the years-after-the-fact revelation that Star Wars is Darth Vader’s story, not Luke Skywalker’s. Vader’s bombshell to Luke that “I am your father” was a shocking thing; it was meant to be; it made his choice at the end to sacrifice himself to save Luke meaningful in a nicely and mythically compact way. I don’t really care about the political machinations and psychological manipulations and deus ex mitichlorians that created – in excruciating dryness – the Dark Lord of the Sith. I don’t care where R2D2 and C3PO came from; they were right where they needed to be at the get-go. Yoda confided to us, in Luke’s dark hour, “There is another!” We suspected that might be Leia, and our suspicions were rewarded. I don’t need to see her birth. And I don’t care much at all to hear how cleverly even as great a talent as John Williams can mix ‘n’ match musical motifs for the sixth time.

Actually, I feel a lot better now. Thanks to the serendipity of an NPR interview and some inner-directed questions, I can simply and without envy put “Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” into the same personal conceptual bucket as “Aliens 3 and 4” and “Matrix 2 and 3.” They don’t exist for me in the same place where the original films live, in loving and ever-renewing memory. Note that I’m not saying they’re bad; they simply… aren’t. This is my choice – because my heart is mysandbox.

And who knows? Now that I’ve discovered this about myself, maybe I will take in “Revenge.” Everyone’s talking about how gorgeous it looks; perhaps I’ll go for the eye candy – anything more than that will be icing, I suppose. But if I do, it’ll be a matinee. George will have to settle for my six-fifty.