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Joseph Campbell, Myth Master

By the time he died last October at 83, he was a little prone to rhapsodies and exhortations. Like a modern Emerson, he let the boldness of his voice drown out the subtlety of his words, sang the praises of the cosmic round too loftily for the tragic sense to bear. He spoke on “human potential” at Esalen and pub­lished books with titles like Myths To Live By and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. A documentary termed his life “A Hero’s Journey.” And he was eulogized finally as a sort of guru to celebrity, a shaman whose ideas inspired Watership Down and Star Wars

At his best, though, Joseph Campbell was merely one of the greatest popu­lar writers on mythology who ever lived. His effect on modern narratives may not be as central as Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance; her review of the Holy Grail legend as a record of fertility rites served as a subtext for “The Waste Land” and a virtual plot outline for The Sun Also Rises. But Campbell’s scope is far wider, and his prose approaches liter­ature on its own. 

In fact, Campbell is tough to place among his colleagues. His name does not carry the weight of Sir James Frazer: the Golden Bough remains seminal in its en­cyclopedic comparison of myths and ritu­als. But Frazer skirted the controversial links between ancient rites and Chris­tianity and so, as Robert Graves said, “was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death …” Graves, on the other hand, leans too heavily on historical explana­tions in The White Goddess and Greek Myths. Each myth to him was the trace of some ancient conquest or migration, and behind them all he saw the con­quered, suppressed but recalcitrant God­dess figure whom, not to put too fine a point on it, he worshipped like a crazy man. Belief also underlies the works of Mircea Eliade, which Campbell consid­ered the scholarly counterpart of his more popular writings. For Eliade, like Campbell, the body of human mythology makes up a metaphysic. But Eliade, un­like Campbell, thought faith in that metaphysic — faith in God, that is — was our only bulwark against despair. 

Which is exactly what makes Campbell so fine, so different. In his best stuff, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and much of the four-volume Masks of God, he never sinks beneath the powerful spell of his subject; he balks at scuttling no belief in his search for a synthesis of them all. Nor does he argue that the synthesis refers to any extrinsic truth. You get all your favorite gods for free, and no evangelist will call. As a result, these books take on a mythic quality themselves — they produce, at times, the liberating effects they describe. Maybe this places Campbell not with the philos­ophers of myth, and certainly not with scientists like Claude Levi-Strauss, but with the authors of “campus classics”: creators of Self-Help Books for the Real­ly Smart like Alan Watts, Ernest Becker, and Norman O. Brown. But Campbell goes beyond them because he does not, as they do, create a closed system of belief. Reading his books, rather, is like putting your hand out in the dark to find a door­way where you thought there was a wall. They offer, in their moment at least, free­dom not only from faith but from faith-lessness, a third way of thinking for those who will neither kneel down nor be shallow. 

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Campbell’s life, on the surface any­way, seems something other, if not less, than a hero’s journey. Born in New York City in 1904, the son of a hosiery importer and his wife, he was raised a Roman Catholic. His annual visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show inspired an interest in Indian culture, and his studies inevitably turned up the fact that the themes of Catholic dogma recur in Indian lore and other legends around the world. Pursuing his interests at Dart­mouth and then Columbia, Campbell won a traveling fellowship to Paris and Mu­nich in the late 1920s. There, he discov­ered the new world of Joyce and Mann, Picasso, Freud, and Jung — and found that it too was based firmly on the old world of myth and legend. He returned to the States just as the market crashed and spent the next few years jobless, wander­ing and, most of all, reading. By 1934, however, he was teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence, where he would stay for the next 38 years. In that time, he be­came moderately famous as an author and editor of books on myth and religion. His mind, even then, was clearly focused on the spiritual — at least one student compared him to a swami. But after his retirement from teaching in 1972, he be­came more completely a preacher on the uses of mythology in the modern world, rejecting the title of guru yet abdicating any claims to scholarly disinterest. At the end, not only George Lucas and Richard Adams, but the Rolling Stones, John Barth, and Denis Johnson could be counted among those whose work was affected by his. 

It sounds like a nice life. Even, as he used to say, a “serendipity.” But it’s pos­sible Donald Newlove got just a tad car­ried away when he wrote in a 1977 Es­quire piece: “His right eye is a falling blossom, his left a fading ember, his way of seeing is the way of genius, of art, of the world’s eye wrapped in a smile of madness. He weighs suns and shadows. He has a will of steel that works titanic labors. He is not mad. He is mad. His cosmic vision lives in two views of the world at once and is beyond duality … ” His office hours are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 

This is not to say that Campbell’s in­sights were less than transcendent, (They would have to be, peering through a fall­ing blossom and a fading ember.) It’s just that the origins and nature of that tran­scendence have been misplaced — and were misplaced even, perhaps especially, by Campbell himself. The Power of Myth illustrates this. The book is edited from a series of interviews Moyers did in 1985 and ’86 at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and at the Museum of Natural History; some of these talks will be broadcast in a six-part series on PBS starting May 18. The intelligence and ob­vious decency of the two participants make the book likable enough; Camp­bell’s seemingly bottomless erudition sometimes makes it fascinating. But there can be no mistake: Campbell had by this time followed the path of his study into dogma. It’s a good dogma, as dogmas go, a sort of spiritual humanism, but the limitations and stagnation of such doc­trinal thinking are obvious in pontifical exchanges like this: 

Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology? 

Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any ritu­als, read The New York Times

Moyers: And you’d find? 

Campbell: The news of the day, includ­ing destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society. 

Those young people! Bring back Torque­mada with his powerful mythology, his rituals, his civilized society — and, oh yeah, those hot pincers, too. 

Such flashes of stodginess show up even in earlier lectures. In 1970, for instance, Campbell scolded “those sociolog­ical geniuses that are, these days, swarm­ing on our activated campuses” because they’d sneered, heaven help us, at the first moon walk. And when, over the years, he mixed these bits of jingoism with a doctrine that seemed to offer en­lightenment without social disruption, he began to become a magnet for the furrow-­browed magi of our more genteel media. The wages of fame is banality.

As a result, it now appears that Camp­bell will be remembered as one of those lovable, harmless philosophers who shake their heads at human madness while re­affirming the “civilized society” that pro­duces it and was produced by it. This is a blessed shame, because it undercuts the power and complexity of the man’s great — sometimes visionary — books. And if the vision of those books congealed over time into priestcraft, if their author, among the first to interpret Finnegans Wake, was interpreted at the last by Jabba the Hut, it only goes to prove a portion of Campbell’s own thesis: “There must always remain … from the stand­point of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be brought from the transcendent deep be­comes quickly rationalized into nonenti­ty, and the need becomes great for anoth­er hero to refresh the word.” 

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That need “to refresh the word,” to revitalize the vehicle of mythic transmission, seems to me the im­plied core of Campbell’s great work. Like Freud, he is far more interesting when viewed not as a guru but as a literary critic: one who tells his tale by giving other tales new life. From this angle, Campbell was a sort of reconstructionist, dedicated to narrative not only as a method of journeying beyond narrative, but also as the place to which silence ceaselessly returns. He was willing to sub­mit to all that narrative implies — causal­ity, authority, and the duality of speaker and listener — but only so that causality would be extinguished, authority re­placed, and the listener metamorphosed into the teller in a round that never ends. Such an outlook, more practically, trans­forms the systems that threaten to crush us into an egress, a way out. The church that makes lapsed Catholics quail, the government that incites revolutionaries, the vagaries of parents and the false stratagems of art are not swept away here, but used as works, as stories that transport us to a place where they cease to exert their power. 

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, written with Henry Morton Robinson, sets the tone of Campbell’s dialogue with world literature. Still a standard textbook 44 years after its publication, the Key identifies Joyce’s use of generic mythic themes. The protagonist’s tumble from a ladder is linked with the Fall; the many faces of Shem and Shaun are pegged to the recurring Brother Battle; the wake becomes a comic rehearsal of Resurrec­tion; and the riverrun which begins and ends the book is seen as the cycle of the One Mother, who is the life of everything that lives and the death of everything that dies. With these themes as guides, the Key proceeds to distill Joyce’s “root language” into something approaching English, and his massive “dreamwork” into something approaching a linear table of creation, manifold life, dissolution, and promised rebirth. 

This is actually kind of a wicked trick: it joins together what Joyce had torn asunder. Finnegans Wake, after all, oper­ates by dismantling itself. Its referential neologisms smudge the borders between the text and all that is not the text. Virtually no word among the book’s many thousands can be read in a single contextual sense; all evoke a series of connected words and ideas which, as the end of the novel suggests, arise from and fall into a unity of silence. This tech­nique, as the author of “Usylessly” brings into focus the accidental nature of the writer’s role. If all words unite finally into one, why are we reading these words? Why Finnegans Wake with all its difficulties and not Dr. No or Peanuts? Or Star Wars? As in the New Testament, the storyteller has to answer the ques­tion: “By what authority doest thou these things?” Joyce, though a fine gentleman in his own right to be sure, had not quite the recourse of his predecessor. 

Campbell and Robinson believed, how­ever, that Joyce had not abandoned his claims on the reader but simply reestab­lished the seat of narrative authority in the collective unconscious. The universal mythic themes enumerated in the Key are worked together throughout the Wake into a recurring dream of the Jung­ian all-mind, an ever-repeating complex of stories that Joyce terms the “mono­myth.” That story-without-end provides its own authority to the teller because, as actual dreams speak the underknowledge of the individual, the monomyth speaks in the hidden voice of us all. 

So an artist like Joyce, as seen in the Key, takes on the heroic role embraced by Stephen Dedalus when he said, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the real­ity of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” That is, he must plunge into the collective unconscious as it is temporarily incarnate in himself and his own life, experience the essence of the monomyth, and retell it afresh, giving his own accidental shape — “a local habita­tion and a name” — to the unchanging human story. 

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, is an attempt to decipher that “one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.” It is Campbell at his peak, the book people cite when they say Campbell “changed their lives,” and many of its interpreta­tions form the underpinning of the Campbellian spiritual approach. I find this irritating: it seems to me the book delivers its kick not with its mythic con­tent, but with its literary method. Camp­bell does not simply analyze the universal tale of the hero-task, he retells it, reforges it, as it were, in the smithy of his soul. To illustrate the unity of diverse tales, he patches together myths from all over the world. Where the voyages of Odysseus or Jason leave off, the descent into Hell of the Sumerian goddess lnanna takes up only to give way to the reawakening of Kamar al-Zaman in the Arabian Nights or the resurrection of Jesus. “We do not particularly care whether [they] ever ac­tually lived,” Campbell writes of these characters. “Their stories are what con­cern us … ” 

The outline of those stories, which are one story, is simple. First, the hero is called to adventure. If he accepts the call, he encounters a protective figure, usually an old man or woman, who supplies him with charms and instructions. “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him,” the hero overcomes the guardian of a threshold and moves into “the regions of the unknown” which are “free fields for the projection of uncon­scious content.” Here, “incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo are … reflected back against the individual and his soci­ety in forms suggesting threats of vio­lence and … dangerous delight.” 

These regions, however, are also the womb of the hero’s rebirth. Because now, “the hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assim­ilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) … One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” 

If he is fortunate, these trials prepare the hero’s consciousness for the ultimate adventure. This could be his atonement with the Great Father or his own apothe­osis; sex with the mother of all things or with an immortal god. Then, if the hero I chooses to accept the challenge of return — have constructed the sort of — critique he had in Hero, literature studying litera­ture. But even he confessed that Hero had been a uniquely vital moment in his work, and that Masks was more of an ”intellectual stunt.” In Creative Mytholo­gy, we are given only a stolid uncovering of the ”norms of myth” as Campbell finds them almost exclusively in Western writings. 

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From Hero to Creative Mythology, Campbell has shown the history of the monomyth to be the monomyth itself: the story of the human race moving from its sterile unity with a mother-envi­ronment, traveling into the realm of threats of violence and dangerous delight, ultimately to reach the threshold of the holy of holies — where perceiver and envi­ronment meet again — where we must try to embrace the other and bring back the boon … which is a retelling of the mono­myth. In this madness of reflection upon reflection, Campbell saw the best vision of the oversoul, the “controlled and in­tended statements of certain spiritual principles” of mankind. But what if the method to the madness lies not in our relationship to eternity, but in our rela­tionship to the structure of narrative it­self? Because once it is seen that every story, even the history of stories, is a mirror on a mirror, we next begin to question whether it is the form of the story that keeps imposing itself upon the content. That is, we begin to ask: does a narrative, simply by virtue of being a narrative, mold its accidental contents into the One Great Narrative? 

John Barth did a comic turn with this Chinese box version of storytelling in his 1972 novel Chimera, which is an extension of Campbell’s ideas. In it, he writes of the “recycled” hero: “‘Loosed at last from mortal speech, he turned into writ­ten words: … letters afloat between two worlds, forever betraying … the man they forever represent.” Likewise, a few years earlier, Jacques Derrida had discov­ered in Plato the idea of the word as the son of the speaker; the spoken word re­mains close to the father, retaining his living power; the written word is the or­phan or parricide who, as Plato writes, “always needs its parent to come to its aid.” Again, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus is depicted as the Logos emitted by the father God, sent to plant his own logos, his parables, like secJs. Which brings us in a circle back to Barth, whose characters like to talk as if ”writ­ing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally making love.” 

The mythic narrative begins to look a lot like the hero it describes. Once this myth grows sterile and codified in the mind of the true believer, it travels from him into the hearing of the faithless. Overcoming the resistance there, it meets with and embraces its opposite, the si­lence of illumination, and so refreshes the wasteland of the mind in which it lives once again. Small wonder all stories are the same, when the simple process of telling stories shapes the contents in the mold of itself. 

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To go further: “The first thing that confronts us in studying verbal structures is that they are arranged sequentially, and have to be read or listened to in time,” writes Northrop Frye in The Great Code. He goes on to say that myth means ”first of all, mythos, plot, narrative, or in general the sequential or­dering of words. As all verbal structures have some kind of sequence … all verbal structures are mythical in this primary sense.” 

In light of this, Campbell’s work con­tinues into places where Campbell him­self did not go. In his conversation with Moyers, he laments our “demytholo­gized” world (with its wayward youth) and seeks a new universal mythology: “The eye of reason, not of my national­ity; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community.” But this is a myth that misses the point. The universal myth is already with us: Language is myth, and any communication in time partakes of the mythic nature Campbell described so well. 

This accounts for our sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same, our sense of what might be called inclusion — an infuriating realization that our history, our ideas, our very method of thought trap us within them­selves. Inclusion is at work, for instance, when Freud uses objections to his theory to prove his theory. It is inclusion when radical opponents of a system can only work change insofar as they shed their radical values and are absorbed into the system, or overturn the system and take on its oppressive nature. Each approach to the structure, each new dogma, is found finally to be bankrupt, because it is never more than a retelling of the same old story. Each attempt to isolate the story — as Roland Barthes did, for instance, in Mythologies — reiterates the story — as Barthes did with his holy trin­ity of signifier, signified, and sign. Inclu­sion, it seems clear, is an aspect of narrative thought because the method of narrative shapes all contents to its own form. 

Another way to represent that method is as a succession of authorities. The voice of authority implants itself in the listener, a new authority is born in the listener and so overturns the original voice. In short, narrative can be seen as an emanation of the complexes we think of as patriarchal. The sequential ordering of words, linear thought, mythic thought is a “patriarchal” endeavor. It is, after all, a patriarchal system that depends on a verbal or written lineage in conferring power over life and death. 

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These sexual images are only images, of course. Our flesh imposes the meta­phors of duality, even when we’ve learned not to impose the metaphors on our flesh. Following along with them, though, it is possible to find an alternative form of communication that, having what we consider “feminine” or yin features, has been largely devalued in the West. In Zen, it is called I shin den shin, meaning “from my soul to your soul,” i.e. word­lessly. It is central to a way of life in which, as the Tao te ching puts it, “those who know speak not.” A ”fixed world of fixed duties, roles, and possibilities,” stagnant and enraging as it may be, does create a society in which actions speak louder than words. This is the communi­cation of direct transmission, as life is communicated from mother to child. 

But as Campbell demonstrated, that silence, insofar as it partakes of life, ceaselessly returns to narrative thought just as narrative thought is always jour­neying toward silence. Whether the movement represents the motion of hero and cosmos, or lover and lover, or body and womb, or the mind and itself — and who’s to say which is the most pro­found? — every story can lead us to a sense of something beyond words, and from that sense we bring new symbols with which we may tell the story again. 

Campbell saw revelation and societal good in some of the moments when story and silence merge, but all that can really be said with certainty is that the conjunc­tion gives us pleasure, like sex, in and of itself. That, stripped of all other mean­ing, may be ”all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Whenever we speak, we tell stories — stories that sound like myths, stories that sound like scientific theories, stories that sound like religions, stories that sound like interpretations of all the stories ever told. When these sto­ries are well received, we experience a silent sense of pleasure, which satisfies us till we need to hear the tales once more. 

To imprison this pleasure in moral law is to lose a bit of paradise through the knowledge of good and evil. As with sex, our judgment need only attend to the different levels and qualities of physical and emotional satisfaction. By this stan­dard, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in the greatness of his prime, was a master mythmaker, a giver of bliss. 

And for that, more than anything else, may the Force be with him. ❖


Who Am I to Doubt the Jedi? ‘Return of the Jedi’ Reviewed

Heaven knows I have fought the good fight against the Jedi — not in the name of evil, of course, but on behalf of a cranky adulthood hobbled by doubts and fears about the human condition and the social contract. The record speaks for itself: I was never stirred by Star Wars; I was never enthralled by The Empire Strikes Back. Thus it is perhaps fitting that Re­turn of the Jedi has arrived on the eve of 1984, and that, like Orwell’s battered hero, I have surrendered to the Force emanating from the myth-making factory of Big Brother George Lucas. The first sign that I was abandoning critical auton­omy in this matter came with my taking my young, intelligent, trend-setting god­son Ross to the ritualistic screening of Return of the Jedi. His critical verdict for which I waited with a pathetic mixture of humility and dependency was clear and lucid: Return of the Jedi was even better than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Now that I have thought about it, I tend to agree. Lucas and his collaborators have managed to sustain the psychic ten­sions in their mythological world through three films over eight years, and by the time the final returns are in from around the world, the gross receipts for Return of the Jedi should exceed the national debt of Nigeria.

There is already some grumbling over this latest joust of the Jedi, to be sure. With the critical crime of sequelitis, one is presumed guilty until proven innovative. One of my cranky adult editors has been heard to complain that Return of the Jedi is cutesier and furrier than its predeces­sors. The Ewoks, a tribe of Teddy bears with traces of both jungle savage and third-world instincts, may seem a bit much at first glance, as if the Star Wars series had been gobbled up by the Mup­pets. Ultimately, however, Return of the Jedi is less callow than Star Wars and less turgid than The Empire Strikes Back. Part of the difference can be attributed to Lucas’s shifting of the directorial reins from anti-genre director Irvin Kershner, who strained to inject complexities into the simplicities of the Star Wars formula for The Empire Strikes Back, to very straight-faced genre director Richard Marquand, who had poured the lushest World War II romanticism through Eye of the Needle, and who has thus managed to blend the Oedipal stirrings of the charac­ters with the moral symmetry of their universe.

What is most remarkable about Re­turn of the Jedi, however, is the canny exploitation of the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have aged eight years since Star Wars, and can thus no longer convincingly impersonate Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in outer space. Rather than resort to the painful younger-than-I-really-am masquerade of Diana Ross in the unlamented The Wiz, Lucas, Kasdan, and Marquand unveil Princess Leia’s legs at long last for a nifty harem routine in the evil lair of a globular intergalactic gangster right out of Lewis Carroll. The spectacle of Princess Leia in the evil clutches of a libidinously mis­shapen monster struck even this gray­beard as more of an erotic shock than any of Nastassja Kinski’s ridiculous fashion mag poses in Exposed. This only goes to demonstrate that whereas Lucas and Company are always one step ahead of Leslie Fiedler, poor James Toback is always one step behind. My aforementioned godson Ross, for example, has grown up on the Star Wars trilogy. All the young fans of Star Wars are now eight years older, and thus are prepared to accept some of the pettier, subimperial forms of grossness to which the Princess Leias in their own midst may be exposed. What is important, however, is that Luke Sky­walker and Han Solo do not make any fuss over what has presumably occurred to Princess Leia. They are still the same people with the same feelings toward each other. Indeed, the revelations of hidden family ties in Return of the Jedi take on the incestuous amplitude of Shake­speare’s late novelistic plays. By the end, however, all the loose ends left dangling in the deliberately open-ended The Empire Strikes Back have been tied so firmly together that it seems impossible for Sky­walker, Solo, and Leia to reemerge in anything but a Proustian recollection of the Jedi trilogy.

It should be noted that Luke Sky­walker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia preexisted Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars. As is not the case with the big-star movies, the iconography of the players was completely subordinated to the mythology of the characters. When kids talked about the movie, they used the names of the charac­ters rather than the actors. By contrast, when pop theoretician Lawrence Alloway asked some years ago what was the name of the character Marilyn Monroe played in Niagara (or in Some Like It Hot or The Misfits, for that matter), his question was clearly rhetorical. One might ask to the same point the names of the characters Robert Redford and Paul Newman played in The Sting. On the other hand, we have the reverse iconography of Rocky and poor Sylvester Stallone, who will probably have to be buried in his boxing trunks after playing a geriatric Rocky IX for the senior citizens circuit. In Return of the Jedi, we are at an in-between phase in the relationship of icon to character. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher have not become big enough stars to transcend their roles, but they are more recognizable presences with the ability to modify the characters they play with behavioral accretions acquired from other films. They seem more com­fortable with each other, and with their increasingly bizarre environments. For the first time I was aware of three dis­tinctive personalities, not the most over­whelming I have ever encountered, to be sure, but likable withal.

This does not mean that I have sur­rendered unconditionally to the Force. Max Ophuls’s Liebelei at the Public The­ater (May 31–June 6) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums at the Film Forum re­main infinitely closer to my notions of grown-up sublimity than Return of the Jedi. Yet I must concede that Lucas and his associates deserve their huge success because they genuinely respect and understand the children in the audience, in themselves, and in all of us. As I watched Ross completely consumed by the absorb­ing spectacle of a son reaching out Christ­like for the mercy of his father, I was reminded of a time almost 46 years ago when my very little brother George screamed in terror at the sight of the evil witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The link jumped into my mind through the eerie resemblances of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor to the animated witch. Lucas has learned his lessons well from old movies. Nonetheless, he has also covered the few vulnerable positions on his ideogrammatic flanks. To the imputations of racist and colonialist overtones in Star Wars, he has responded by bringing Billy Dee Williams aboard again from The Empire Strikes Back, and striking a chic Viet Cong-Sandinista pose with his outgunned but not outfought Teddy Bear brigades. All in all, the com­mercial colossus strikes again, and this time it can claim me as one of its prison­ers, that is, if it even bothers to take prisoners.

As to where the Jedi are going from here, all I can think of is a growing ideo­logical rupture between the collectively­-oriented conscience of One-Worlder Luke Skywalker and the rugged individualism of confirmed Reaganaut Han Solo. Prin­cess Leia would find herself torn between these two divergent ideologies and manifestations of manhood. I’ll tell you what, George. Mail me a little front money so that I can take a leave of absence from the Voice to bat out a treatment. Say a cool million or so. After all, when I surrender, I like to surrender in style. ■


Galactic Graffiti: ‘Star Wars’ Reviewed

You know the wife who nudges her husband into refusing a second peche melba at a dinner party. It’s only to­ prevent the overweight mate from popping a button or having a heart attack, but suddenly she’s the heavy: Everyone leaps on her as a “nag” while showering him with sympathy. Or the 14-year-old girl who scolds her kid brother for his childishness: Again, she becomes the obnoxious one while the world winks indulgently at the carnage of the bratty brother. By this standard of injustice, I don’t see how I can come out ahead panning Star Wars, George Lucas’s science-fiction film that has been ac­claimed by children of all ages as the Fun Movie of the year. How do you catch a falling star, or prick a helium-filled cartoon? Well, the reviewer’s lot is not an easy one and, at the risk of sounding like myself as a prissy 14-year-old, dammit, Star Wars is childish, even for a cartoon. And I don’t mean charmingly childlike, though occasionally — very occasionally — it is that, too.

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Lucas, who both wrote and directed Star Wars, is the young man who hit the jackpot with American Graffiti, a genuinely charming slice of teenage Americana. Though apparently unrelated to the science-fiction films that preceded and followed it, that midsummer night’s dream of lust and locomotion, coupling and uncoupling, now appears to have been transitional in its fusion of technology (the car culture) and humanity (the youth culture), culminating in the curiously tame toy-store fantasies of Star Wars.

I should admit at the outset that I am anything but a science-fiction aficionado, particularly in its extraterres­trial varieties. The instant little men in white diving suits appear on the horizon, I don’t much care where they’re from or what they’re doing or whose team they’re on. I can’t seem to finish a paragraph explaining the blue-­screen principle of special-effects cinematography, and I find the “revolutionary art” of holography even more boring than its “revolutionary” predecessor, 3-D.

Since reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainte­nance, I have made a serious effort to understand the classic and romantic aspects of my typewriter (no more infuriated pounding on its impervious metal frame), but that is as far as my truce with technology goes. Nor have cartoon amazons and supermen ever stirred my imagina­tion. I have never seen Star Trek nor followed the cartoon careers of supernatural adventurers. My power fantasies have entirely to do with earthly activities that can be satisfied on or within such relatively orthodox playing areas as tennis courts, telephones, cars, hallways, and auditoriums filled with clapping hands.

Consequently, I am not the person most sensitive to the newest wrinkles in either the technology or the mythology of the science-fiction film, but it strikes me that Star Wars works a rather odd double twist, becoming paradoxically the most ultra-modern and utterly old-fashioned film of its kind.

THX 1138, the science-fiction short that Lucas made while still in film school and later expanded into a feature, was a classy, high-gloss yet austere bit of futurism, a fantasy obsessed with hardware and “look,” very much in the style of the new sci-fi film. With it, Lucas became one of the directors responsible for the upward mobility of the genre, once among the lowest of the B-films, and its successful bid for A-film accreditation. Although THX’s vision of alienation, expressed in a white-on-white set of endless corridors and interchangeable cubicles, was in many ways extreme and mesmerizingly seductive, it retained the traditional ideal of freedom, in other words, the very same conflict between the individual and technology (or totalitarianism) that animated the science­-fiction films of the ’50s.

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Similarly with Kubrick’s 2001. Like THX 1138, it was more than half in love with the machinery, with the perfect, inhuman environment it ostensibly abhors, but there is in both films a sense of awe, alienation, fear — if no longer of technology itself then of the spaces between men it has created.

But somewhere between then and now, the hardware that was the subject and villain of the sci-fi film, the “monster” of outer (i.e., scientific) space, has become the architect and artisan of the film, and, through the back door, its subject once again. The computerized special-ef­fects wizardry is what Star Wars is all about and the reason armchair mechanics are enthralled. Technology is no longer humanity’s nemesis but its newest toy; the message has become the medium. (For me, though apparently not for others, the feeling of relativity, of entering another dimension of time is less overpowering in Star Wars than in earlier films where the effect was wrought less “realistic­ally” — as with the hologram, more realism is less. But then there is the “artificiality” of our spatial environment to consider — an extension, perhaps, of the avant-garde film.)

The technology in Star Wars, that is the computers that both run and populate the planets along with human and mechanical primates, is no longer eerie or chilling but familiar, lived in, downright cuddly. The inventory of this F.A.O. Schwarz of a movie includes chubby little tripod computers tooling around, buzzing and bleeping like house pets; intergalactic aircraft that are no longer dazzling models of mechanical perfection but showing signs of wear and tear; white-suited men, the soldiers/mainte­nance men of the space station, who trot around its circular corridors with the monotonously purposeful air of Central Park joggers.

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The war itself, a feud between two rival space clans, does not produce any real sense of danger. The combatants are the Imperialists, who bear a resemblance to the governors of the Holy Roman Empire in its last divided days, and the Rebels, followers of the Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and rightful heirs to the mystical “Force.” This is an “energy field created by all living things,” according to a Force-full relic of an earlier age (Alec Guinness), and seems to be a sort of hybrid of bio-feedback and Zen as it has been merchandized into a technique for winning at sports by not wanting to win. Between these two factions, the ideological differences are hardly more striking than those that separate the Greens and the Golds in prep-school athletics. What little tension there is is superficial, the work of sharp cutting between adversaries, a squared-off approach to plot, character, pacing that is the cinematic equivalent of a cartoon. The culminating battle scenes are modeled on World War II bomber movies. In fact, old movies are everywhere, providing a kind of instant camp mythology that enables Lucas to refer to old plots, situations, character types, without developing them. “I have seen the future,” says Lucas, “and it is a mishmash of old M-G-M and Warner Bros. movies.” But old movies extrapolated into clichés, into self-parody for the grown-ups, and for the kids, into the bland recognizable faces on drugstore paperback covers.

Do Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his cohorts, the Princess and the Soldier of Fortune, played by Harrison Ford, in a space-age rendering of the Arthurian triangle minus the conflicts that make it timeless, really have to be quite so charmless? There are cartoons and cartoons, and in Logan’s Run Michael York and Jenny Agutter performed a similar function much more gracefully. As for plucky cartoon princesses, I’ll take Farrah Fawcett­-Majors any time. Carrie Fisher, who made such an auspicious debut as the miserably precocious daughter in Shampoo, is merely supercilious as she reads the self­-mocking lines of Star Wars.

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What I find mildly depressing about Star Wars is that it seems to address itself, like more and more television programming, to a “family market” defined by its pre-pubescent age level, somewhere between 10 and 14. Lucas bridges the generation gap simply by providing a one-way ticket back to adolescence. Adults who have been complaining these many months that there are no movies to which they can take their children now are having their prayers answered. Why movies should be required to perform this cultural babysitting service I don’t know, but far be it from me to ban the magical formula that can keep the American family together and young forever! ■

STAR WARS. Directed and written by George Lucas. Produced by Gary Kurtz. A Lucasfilm Limited production, released by 20th Century-Fox. At Loews Astor Plaza and Loews Orpheum. 


Hide Yourself in a Dead Tauntaun and Read This 1977 Mark Hamill Interview

Among many other things, The Last Jedi gave Mark Hamill a chance to give one of the best performances of his career — portraying an embittered, broken Luke Skywalker lost in regret and angst. It was quite a revealing performance, and one that seemed to speak not just to Luke’s troubled journey in the movies, but also to Hamill’s own interesting path through stardom. So, we decided to offer up this treasure from the Village Voice archives. It’s a 1977 profile of Hamill, written by Tom Nolan, in the early days of the original Star Wars’ runaway success. In it, he talks about how his life has changed, how much he admires his co-star Harrison Ford, how George Lucas seemed to be tinkering with the movie even after its release (“he’s gonna fix up Star Wars after it’s already opened!”), and the most famously whiny first lines of a sci-fi hero in movie history.


A Star Is Kind of Born
By Tom Nolan
June 13, 1977

“Yes, could you send up another bottle of that Don…Perigrom?” the handsome young man in the Unemployed Artist T-shirt asks into the telephone. “All right,” he tells room service, “switch to hyperspace!”

Mark Hamill, 24-year-old veteran of the Hollywood acting wars and humanoid star of the biggest entertainment phenomenon since Jaws, plops his short, tired frame onto his bed at the Beverly Hillcrest, where he and his two Star Wars costars are being treated to expense-account living during a week of hectic interviews. This day alone he has filmed 37 TV shots for shows all across the country. “I felt like a computer. ‘How has this changed your life?’ Zzzt. ‘Is George Lucas really shy?’ Zzzt.

“How has this changed my life? I’m ordering $43 bottles of a champagne I can’t even pronounce!” Mark, who worked his way quickly through the ranks, from soap operas through commercials to TV series to the big break in features, now sits on the mixed blessing of being Luke Skywalker, instant celebrity. He is facing the future with the same bubbling enthusiasm that has seen him this far.

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“I remember being back in Africa, filming the first line I say in the movie. I’d said to myself, remember, you have to go way up in this scene so that in the middle of the movie you can start to make your transition, from a wormy guy down to someone halfway human. So, out comes this singsong falsetto: “But I was going into Talshi station to pick up some power converters!” Aaargh! It made me ill! I swear, I thought I was gonna throw up the first time I saw it. But I’ve seen it four times now, and each time I like myself better. I like myself for about 30 per cent of it. I think I fit in. I do.

“Harrison is per-fect! Harrison, of all the humans, comes closest to stealing it. When I heard him say, ‘Keed — I been from one sida this galaxy to the other —’ I said, oh jeez! this guy…he has every good line. It killed me! Him and Threepio. I’d say, can’t I have one joke, George? Just one?”

Mark does a fine, slow, Harrison Ford drawl as he describes their first meeting in Tunisia. “He says, ‘Sooo, kiiid, wadya…think a this…fuckin’ movie we’re in…’ I’m all, ‘well, gol-lee! hey!’ He goes, ‘Just…calm down, keed…’ The big brother! Perfect! Does George Lucas cast exactly right, or what? He gets so close to what he wants, he doesn’t need to get into any big editorial conferences. His biggest direction to me was, ‘Faster. More intensity’.”

Mark signed on for a Star Wars trilogy. “Supposedly, the last one comes out in ’83, when Luke Skywalker definitely will have crow’s feet. I’ll be limping around, my landspeeder will have training wheels. They cast me as a kid, to grow into Luke the man, right? But…this is it folks. This is as tall as I get! I’m in big trouble…”

Meanwhile, he’s set to do Stingray, a film by Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, authors of Sugarland Express. “If I can’t pull off a real interesting character kinda thing in that, it’ll really blow my career away. It’s like, ‘Okay — what can he do without the special effects?’ I don’t know. I’m real scared of it. The script’s over there, on the desk. I should be doing homework. It’s gonna be hard. And scary. Real scary.

“People say to me, why are you doing that movie? Car movies never make money; they’re too esoteric. But the two guys, Robbins and Barwood, are so great, they’re just like little kids. ‘Hey, we’re makin’ a moovie!’ And there just aren’t that many parts for guys my age. When you get a break like Star Wars, you don’t want to screw it up, do Trip with the Teacher or Crown International.

“It’s weird. Stuff can get to you. Brian De Palma…I shouldn’t even say this…I heard he said, if I were on fire, he wouldn’t piss on me. And I got real depressed. Because I like his films, you know?” He describes a misunderstanding that led to his being snubbed by another director, an old friend from TV. “It made me feel real creepy. You can’t…it’s not like high school anymore. You can’t keep your friends; not in this business.”

The telephone rings. Someone from the studio is lining up more media shots for Mark. “Should I do all this stuff?” he asks the caller. “Am I overexposing myself? I want to know! Everybody said, what a fool you are to do Dinah, Mark, and why Merv Griffin? You know who we almost got booked with, and I would have destroyed my career? Julie Nixon Eisenhower! I know, I would have been sure to say something foolish…I would love to do the Carson show! But no guest hosts, no David Brenner — I want to see the Man.… Okay, I’ll call you Monday! Fabulous! That’s our new word these days! Fabulous!”

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Things were not so fabulous a few months ago, when, distraught over a prior commitment to play in a series for ABC, which threatened to destroy his career momentum, Mark cracked up his car on the Antelope Freeway. The accident got him out of the series, but the price was nearly ultimate.

“I don’t remember any of it. Don’t even remember getting into the car. I woke up in County General. There’s a guy moaning next to me, and some intern says, ‘We’re gonna take him next because he’s in worse shape than you are, and you’re in pretty bad shape,’ and he holds a mirror up to my face and…it looks like a raspberry pie. My nose was off. I didn’t have a nose, it was just gone; later they took cartilage from my ear to build it back up.

“I went to the premiere. I still had a bandage on my nose. Kids came up to me and asked what happened. I said, ‘A little trouble with the light saber in the fourth system.’ They go ‘Wow! You gotta be careful, huh Luke?’ ”

The last of the Dom Perignon is gone; it’s time for dinner. Mark and six others head down to the dining room of his hotel, where folks like Patty Hearst and the prime minister of Granada come to get away from it all. For the aperitif, it’s more Dom Perignon.

“This is the last bottle you have? Bring it! We want everything!” And, during an exquisite meal, we talk Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars — just as others in restaurants all over town, all over other towns, are talking Star Wars. How the movie made a quarter million the first day. How great Alec Guinness was. How George Lucas deadpanned that his next movie was going to be a students’ film, 16mm, amateur actors — he’d never get involved in anything large scale again! “Perfect!” Mark says every few minutes, positively exultant.

“The very night it opened,” he says, “my phone rings at, like, 10 o’clock. This voice says, ‘hyah kid. You famous yet?’ ‘Who is this?’ ‘It’s George. You famous yet?’ Think you can come in and loop a couple lines?’ I say, ‘George, it’s opening night! All over town! Wake up, big guy!’ He says, ‘You don’t understand. We’re doing the monaural mix tonight. We’re gonna clean up some of the dialogue. The monaural mix is gonna be even better than the stereo!’ I mean…he’s gonna fix up Star Wars after it’s already opened! I say, ‘Well, I don’t drive anymore. If you send a car over, I’ll be right there.’

“The driver picks me up. I say, ‘Drive by the Avco, I’ve gotta see the lines.’ He drives by. Lines around the block. He turns the corner and starts around again. I say, ‘What’re you doing?’ He says, ‘Will you do something for me? Will you lean out the window, and say, ‘Hiiii! It’s meee!’ I say, ‘Oh God, no, don’t make me do that.’ He says, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’ He says, ‘Will you think about it?’ I say, ‘No, I can’t, really. Please.’ ”

And Mark Hamill signs the $200 tab for dinner — “thank you, Twentieth! Thank you, George!” — as happy as the man who fell to earth.




Carrie Fisher: The Coolest Aunt We Never Had

There’s a running joke in our family that mom is really Carrie Fisher’s half-sister, the product of a hush-hush affair between a teenage Debbie Reynolds and some anonymous Hollywood Casanova. Mom was adopted and has never been tempted to track down her birth parents; what we siblings do know is that she was born in Los Angeles, in 1948. We also know that — if only for a stretch in the eighties — she was a dead ringer for Carrie Fisher.

Adoption is a weird thing. Our mother was raised by wonderful parents in a preposterously bucolic setting (Maui in the fifties), and those are her parents, and our grandparents. The sister she grew up with is our aunt. There was never any reason for her to go searching, but the mystery of her adoption still lent itself to flights of imagination. Our ancestors could be anyone we chose. And who better to have as an imaginary aunt than Carrie Fisher?

She was Leia, of course, only the most iconic fictional mystery sister of our shared pop-culture-addled youth. But she was also the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, star of our family favorite Singin’ in the Rain. She was Sally’s best friend in When Harry Met Sally. She was Meryl Streep or, rather, Meryl Streep was her, in Postcards from the Edge. She was crazily creative and creatively crazy. And she was honest and unashamed of her struggles.s

But first, for us, she was Princess Leia. Leia Organa was no ordinary character of science fiction. She was an incredibly important symbol to all three Swanson siblings, with or without our (potentially) imaginary relation to her. David (me, the oldest) was born exactly one month to the day after Star Wars detonated the cinematic universe in 1977. Katrina (the middle child) arrived two years later, in time for Empire Strikes Back. And baby Andrew (that’s me too — we’re writing this together) showed up in 1988, making him 11 — the perfect age! — for the prequels that could never live up to the original trilogy his older siblings had raised him on. To all of us Leia represented leadership, sassiness, intelligence, wit, bravery and a fierce determination to destroy injustice and rid the galaxy of evil. Leia was good. She was fearless. She could tame Han Solo and lead a rebellion at the same time. Leia was proof positive that giving up or giving in is not an option. She was a flame, gleaming in the dark of space, a signal to the desperate.

Katrina was the one who first noticed the startling resemblance between Leia and mom, and by the time Andrew came around, we’d decided to run with the theory. (For the record, Katrina felt the “sisters” got their shared genes from Eddie Fisher, not Debbie Reynolds. But Eddie was a cad, and Debbie Reynolds was Kathy Seldon — an angel — so we can agree to disagree. For what it’s worth, Eddie Fisher was playing resorts in the Catskills in the late forties, while Debbie Reynolds was just embarking on her Hollywood career, Miss Burbank 1948!)

Instead of telling Andrew that he was left on the doorstep (as any good older siblings would have done), he was informed of the supposed story of our mother’s origin. After all, Leia was an orphan, too, just like mom. Andrew was floored, of course, and would go on to obsessively compare photos of mom and Carrie Fisher from the same period of time in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then imagine finally meeting her, once we’d proven our theory using some form of DNA testing we didn’t yet grasp. She would smile at us lovingly and hug us and make us laugh. She would make fun of us and call us out for making a mess. She would be our Aunt Carrie — and we would love her just like we always had in our imaginations. (Mom, for her part, found our wild speculation cute, and ultimately harmless. After all, she had a perfectly fine family of her own, thank you very much.)

Carrie Fisher would have been the coolest aunt. We all felt pride when she spoke out honestly about her struggles with addiction and mental health. We instinctively leapt to her defense when others poked fun at her appearance as she aged like normal people do, Hollywood norms be damned. She was so smart, so funny, and such a comfort when she was back up on our screens in The Force Awakens.

Last Saturday, on Christmas Day, we took a family outing to go see Rogue One. The movie ends on a sustained crescendo, as the narrative speeds up and runs right into the opening images from A New Hope, our first taste of Star Wars from four decades ago. Our shared excitement crested with the appearance of a young Leia, Carrie Fisher as we first knew her. It felt like a family reunion.

Editors Note: Soon after this story was posted, Debbie Reynolds died after suffering a stroke, just one day after her daughter’s passing. Another family reunion is in order.

David Swanson is an editor and writer in New York. Andrew Burden Swanson is a writer, actor and carpenter in Chicago.


Looking for Love, IRL, at New York Comic Con

“Can I get a Pikachu?” 

I try not to roll my eyes at the guy sitting across from me, dressed in normal clothes amongst a sea of superheroes.

Finally, I had an excuse to wear the eight-year-old-boy-sized Pokémon shirt I’d bought a couple years ago. The occasion? Speed dating at New York Comic Con, which ran October 9-12.

Comic Con seems an unlikely place to get your flirt on, but when nerds unite clad in Spandex and armor, sparks can fly. I’d gone speed dating only once before, at Minneapolis Comic Con, and heard epic tales of the speed dating scene at NYCC. One year, a woman went through nine rounds of three-minute dates with 70 guys without getting a single match…and on her tenth try, she got more than 60 numbers. Like I said, epic. I had a great time meeting fellow dorks in Minnesota, so I cleared my schedule to give it a shot in the Big Apple.

It’s early morning and I descend the escalators into the depths of the Javits Center basement to try and finagle my way into a morning speed dating session. The day before, organizers told me there was a thousands-long waiting list already, but that I should just register and show up anyway, since most of the people on the list were guys.

I find a lengthy queue already forming outside the door. Mostly men. But there are a handful of women waiting there, too, most notably a svelte Sailor Mars and a chic TARDIS. Slightly bedraggled and rain-soaked, I take my place in line and pull out a book, hoping Pikachu and a swipe of red lipstick will be enough to get me into this session.

I’m on the cusp of nerdiness. I crack Star Wars jokes and paint my nails with Doctor Who stuff, but I’ve never seen Firefly. I love Miyazaki and debate over who the best X-Men are (Rogue and Gambit, anyone?), but I couldn’t name a solid anime series. When I was a teenager, I attempted to learn Elvish — mostly because I liked Tolkien, and partly due to my (still-standing) crush on Orlando Bloom. Luckily, it’s a numbers game and not nerd trivia that gets me into Saturday’s dating session.

A guy strikes up a conversation while we wait in line, under the pretense of seeing whether or not my book is good. We talk about everything from social services in Europe to why there aren’t more writers of color (or women, for that matter) creating comics. He’s a cool, creative-minded person…the only problem is that he is one of many, many guys trying to get into this session. He doesn’t make the cut.

Eventually, I talk my way off the waiting list and into the room. I look around at fourteen couples sitting across from one another, name tags stuck onto homemade costumes and a surprising number of Superman shirts. Sadly, this is as big as the group will get. More than 50 guys who waited in line for a shot at geek love get rejected before they even have a chance.

Previous years of speed dating at New York Comic Con were helmed by Ryan Glitch of Sci-Fi Speed-Dating — a matchmaking Jedi master. This year, NY Minute Dating handles the program, and it’s immediately clear that this is a different ballgame. NY Minute Dating also runs more traditional speed dating events, so they handle the event with more pizazz and less dorky charm.

I’m not sure what first tips me off about the organization’s lack of geek cred: the Top 40 hits blasting from a sound system so loud you can barely hear the person across from you, or that the host asks, “What’s up with that blue police box thing? I’m seeing that everywhere…” That’s the TARDIS. Duh, you non-Whovian…whoops, is my geek flag flying too high?

As it turns out, you can fly that thing as high as you want at Comic Con and no one will bat an eye. Most of the people here haven’t done speed dating before — they’re experimenting outside their normal social circles.

“This seems like a less creepy way to meet people, you know?” one guy tells me. “You don’t want to just walk up to someone and try to be their friend here…that can be super weird.” Indeed.

Here, in a fluorescent-light-soaked room, we’ve got an acceptable excuse for chatting with complete strangers. Each person sits in a chair across from a member of the opposite sex, holding a sheet of paper he or she will write everybody’s name on. If you like someone, you’ll circle their name and log on to the NY Minute Dating site the next day to declare a match. The men cycle around the room every three minutes after a bell dings, while the ladies wait for a literal knight in shining armor.

A college-age guy with warpaint and a leather jacket plops down in front of me with an intense look on his face. “You look punctual. Are you punctual?” Uh, hello to you, too.

“I try to be on time!” I reply cheerfully.

“I need someone to be punctual if I’m with them. I don’t want to waste my time,” he explains. “Some people think I’m an asshole, but that’s just how I am. I’m an asshole.”

Whoa there, Nelly. Despite my best efforts to steer the conversation somewhere positive by asking what he does for fun, it doesn’t really turn out.

“I sleep,” he says plainly. “I’m like a bear. I want to hibernate and get away from the world, but you shouldn’t wake me.” I let that sleeping bear lie until our three minutes are up.

I meet a chef-turned-real estate agent with a penchant for traveling around the world…and collecting Star Wars toys. He says he dedicated a whole room in his house to playthings from a galaxy far, far away, and he’s even got a life-size Chewbacca.

A bloody vampire swoops in and we wax poetic about the new rom-com show A to Z, and I wonder if it’s difficult to talk with those super-long fangs. A future astronomer tells me about the stars and expanding human perception. I watch a guy solve a Rubik’s Cube in 50 seconds. Someone says I look like a businesswoman. One guy has just seen Adam West, and I recount one of the few old-school Batman episodes I’ve seen. To my delight, he knows exactly which episode I’m talking about.

Despite some great conversations I’ve had with a bunch of the people in the room, I watch half a dozen guys draw a big circle around my name before I even get a chance to say hi. It is one of these men, focused solely on my appearance, who asks, “Can I get a Pikachu?” (a nerdy, sometimes-creepy play on “peek at you”). I smile blankly and change the subject. Three minutes doesn’t always feel like ample time to get to know someone…but at times, it can seem much too long.

When the event wraps up in a little under an hour, I emerge from the Javits basement and into the sunlight having made some meaningful connections with people I never would have met otherwise.

Speed dating isn’t for everyone, but at Comic Con, it’s kind of like real-life Tinder for nerds. Folks at the Con are already wearing their hearts on their sleeve whether they’re in costume or not, and they’re all there for the same reason: They’re passionate about their fandom. Why not bring ’em together and see who falls for some Star-Lord cosplay or a Harry Potter joke? Just because you like sci-fi doesn’t mean it has to take light-years to find love…sometimes it’s just three minutes away.


The Death of the Star Wars Universe

Recently, Star Wars fans, along with much of the planet’s pop-culture collective, nearly ruptured the internet in their enthusiasm to share set-building photos from next year’s long-awaited new feature film.

But these weren’t shots of just any set. They depicted the construction of the Millennium Falcon.

You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. It’s the modified YT-1300 light freighter that rumbled off a Correllian assembly line half a century before being piloted by that space scoundrel Han Solo. It’s the same ship he was flying 50 years later with his granddaughter at his side following the Second Galactic Civil War.

Wait a minute. Correllians? Second Civil War? Han Solo has a granddaughter? There’s a lot more known about that hyperdrive-powered hunk of junk than meets the eye in any Star Wars movie. Thank the Star Wars Expanded Universe for that.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe — or simply the EU, as many fans call it — has been around almost as long as George Lucas’s Star Wars itself, which, for the record, turned 37 years old over Memorial Day weekend. While the core Star Wars Universe consists of the six Lucasfilm feature films released between 1977 and 2005, as well as the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie and TV series that followed, the EU includes the characters, creatures, star systems, technologies and, most importantly, the storytelling in novels, short stories, comics, radio shows, video games, amusement park rides, and any other official Star Wars material created over that time.

That same EU fueled a similar Star Wars internet wildfire at the end of April, one lit by Lucasfilm itself as The Walt Disney Company commenced production on the as-yet-untitled Episode VII of the Star Wars films. In a statement on, Lucasfilm declared all of the EU creative material as inconsequential and even irrelevant to films yet to come. To be clear, while screenwriters and filmmakers can and may still look back on that material and draw elements of it forward, no creator must adhere to it and, in all likelihood, they won’t.

While Luke Skywalker’s wife, Han and Leia’s three children, tens of thousands of years of Star Wars history before the first Death Star exploded, and about 150 years of adventures afterward — it’s all out there, in one form of another — still can be read and enjoyed, no one should expect it to appear on screen.

The announcement swept pop culture in much the same way as the Force informed Obi-Wan Kenobi of Alderaan’s destruction by the Empire: Millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror. It’s just that those voices were not suddenly silenced. Almost two months later, many passionate Star Wars fans continue to view the announcement as Disney’s “eff you” to the EU, feeling betrayed after their devoting time, attention and, let’s face it, money to knowing each detail of the universe beyond the films over the course of three decades.

That material never would have been created in the first place had moviegoers not found the original Star Wars so rich in imaginative detail that begged for elaboration. Force-wielding Jedi Knights and 200-year-old Wookiee co-pilots and howling TIE fighters and rolling, bleeping droids — droids! — proved way too cool to be contained by the screen alone for long.

Consider that for the first 22 years of Star Wars being a thing, movie fans could watch a little more than six hours of storytelling, an amount of screen time surpassed by the Harry Potter films released in fewer than three years and nearly equaled by the first two Lord of the Rings films over just two Decembers. Star Wars fans were hungry for more adventures in that galaxy far, far away, and storytellers delivered — just not with more movies.

Star Wars was only a few months into its theatrical run when the first EU story of Han Solo and Chewbacca hit comic-book racks in issue No. 7 of Marvel Comics’ Star Wars (the first six issues had adapted the movie, while the seventh pits the Falcon crew against the cunning space pirate Crimson Jack). That winter, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 faced none other than Darth Vader in the original novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster. The next year would see a trilogy of Han Solo novels by Brian Daley, who also scripted National Public Radio’s dramatizations of all three original Star Wars films, and the EU was born.

And now, it’s gone. Kinda.

Genre fans and pop-culture buffs are no strangers to such decanonization, as it were, of previously established facts and events for fictional characters. Comic-book publishers pull apart and smash together their internal universes with regularity these days. Star Trek fans have been seeing the TV adventures of Captain Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise crew re-imagined in Episode VII director J.J. Abrams’s feature films for the past five years (even though those films are regarded as occurring in a new time line that protects the nearly 50 years of onscreen Star Trek as still “existing”). Even fans of the primetime TV have witnessed the events of episodes getting swept out of mind as not actually happening to the characters. The 1985–86 season of Dallas, its ninth, became regarded as Pam Ewing’s dream by the start of the 10th season, effectively returning Bobby Ewing from the dead. Series finales of shows such as Roseanne, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart left viewers wondering whether anything in the series had happened at all. (Oh: Spoiler alert.)

The real difference with the Star Wars EU was the effective lengths to which Lucasfilm went to tell fans that it mattered. Events chronicled in novels and comics and elsewhere influenced and depended on each other, weaving it all into one cohesive whole because creators cared enough about it to do so — and fans loved them for it. When something happened in the EU, it affected the whole, and sometimes in ways most fans didn’t like so much. George Lucas himself approved Vector Prime, a 1999 novel by R.A. Salvatore, in which Chewbacca is killed in the destruction of a planet. And poor Chewie hasn’t been seen in any story set since. A suggested reason behind the choice to let the Wookiee lose this time was that authors and editors believed fans were not taking the books so seriously anymore, so a character was chosen to die. Fans weren’t happy about that, either.

To a lot of fans, the move compares more to a college basketball team having a championship season reduced to an asterisk in a record book because of a rule violation. They are not taking kindly to the idea of someone telling them that an experience they cheered and embraced and wore and loved simply never happened.

For those who have explored it, the Star Wars Expanded Universe really matters, not because it simply exists, but because it sometimes offers what they regard as top-quality storytelling within it. Fans point to the Thrawn trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn, the Dark Empire series released by Dark Horse Comics, and Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated shorts shown on Cartoon Network as Star Wars: Clone Wars among EU highlights they enjoy more than even some of the films.

Now, Lucasfilm has tied up in a bow those years of storytelling as a new generation of fans awaits the next Star Wars film. Up front, they managed the expectations of longtime fans that the sequel we really have wanted since 1983 is not going to be hamstrung by agreeing with the events of a decades-old novel or comic book — and in many ways, fahns should be thankful. Episode VII is unencumbered and in the hands of storytellers bounded by only their own imaginations, and moviegoers won’t be watching a new film with a 25-year-old story some of them already have dreamed up.

Hey, if nothing else, Chewie is alive and well again, and ready to roar into a theater near you.

Kevin Dilmore wrote his first and only Star Wars Expanded Universe story as an eighth-grader in 1978. It remains unpublished.


Bring Me the Head of Han Solo

Harrison Ford has been a good soldier in the Star Wars. He did whatever was asked of him by his commanding officer, George Lucas, even when his commanding officer was wrong. Now that Ford is back in Star Wars, and J.J. Abrams is running the show, Abrams’s first order of business should be to give Ford what he’s wanted for decades: death. It’s time to kill Han Solo.

For the good of the movie. For the good of the movies, which changed after 1977, largely for the worse. To restore balance to the Force. To redeem the much-abused Star Wars brand, so tarnished by prequels and such that Disney paid $4.05 billion for it. (Technically for Lucasfilm, but that’s Star Wars, mostly.)

Abrams should welcome Ford back by rubbing him out. Honorably. Heroically. But decisively, and for the love of God, permanently. Not Spock-dead. Not Agent Coulson-dead. Dead. Solo? He gotta go-lo.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Ford built an airtight case for Solo’s demise in Return of the Jedi, the original trilogy finale that opened 31 Memorial Day weekends ago. From the 2004 making-of documentary, Empire of Dreams:

Harrison Ford: I thought Han Solo should die. I thought he ought to sacrifice himself for [Luke and Leia]. He’s got no mama. He’s got no papa. He’s got no future. He has no story responsibilities at this point. So let’s allow him to commit self-sacrifice.

Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan: I also felt someone had to go. . . . It should happen very early in the last act so you begin to worry about everybody.

Lucas overruled them, of course. He doesn’t bother to say in that documentary what his rebuttal to his star and writer’s fully-armed-and-operational-arguments was. Gary Kurtz, the producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back who parted ways with Lucas when they couldn’t agree on Jedi‘s tone — Kurtz wanted it more downbeat, and to include Solo’s death — said in a 2010 Los Angeles Times interview that Lucas forbade any plot developments that might cut into toy sales.

As someone who owned three different Han Solo action figures in 1985 or thereabouts — reflecting his very minor wardrobe changes in each of the three movies — I am the proof of Lucas’s instincts as a businessman. Not that I’d have ditched them if I had seen Han Solo die onscreen. I sold my Star Wars figures cheap at a yard sale when I was 11 or 12. Puberty was going to arrive whether Han Solo died or didn’t.

This might be why the hero of Ford’s other franchise with George Lucas, Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr., Ph.D., always mattered more to Ford than Han Solo did: It’s easier for a grown man to connect to his 12-year-old self than to his eight-year-old one. The Indiana Joneses are geared for a slightly older audience, whereas the heart of the Star Wars pictures is decidedly preadolescent. The difference, obviously, is sex. Indiana Jones has it. No one in the Star Wars universe does. (“When a man and a woman love each other very much, they lie down together and then, uh, Midichlorians, probably?”) Try to imagine Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in bed together and the viewscreen in your mind automatically flips to a musical number from the Ewok village. You can’t do it.

Lucas’s sudden artistic conservatism came at Jedi‘s expense. It was a massive hit, of course, but it’s a much lousier movie than it needed to be. Empire, the trilogy’s tense, frightening, mysterious, mythologically rich middle chapter, remains unimpeachable, a stellar achievement in fantasy filmmaking. But Jedi is a lumbering, repetitive, tin-earned toy ad, made all the poorer by a historically awful performance from Ford.

It isn’t his fault that he spends the first 19 minutes of this 134-minute picture as a wall hanging in Jabba the Hutt’s stately pleasure dome. (These time stamps reflect the “Special Edition” Jedi, as Lucas has made it tough to lay hands on the original theatrical versions, further alienating his constituents.) Or that Solo, so cocksure and unpredictable in A New Hope, so rakish and desperate and arrogant in Empire (Leia: “I love you!” Han: “I know.”), seems to have suffered a possibly carbonite-induced testosterone plunge reminiscent of that dispiriting moment when once-edgy stand-up comics start talking about their adorable kids. (In fact, Solo is the father of twins by Leia in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire, but Disney announced only last week that that’s officially non-canonical now — an “imaginary story,” in the delightful language of 1950s DC Comics.) We’ll forgive Solo his mojolessness during Jedi‘s first act — he can’t even see, when he’s first unfrozen. For a few moments, it seems his year or so as a conversation piece in Jabba’s lair had left him afflicted with space PTSD. Intriguing! Will the balance of the film explore this?

As Darth Vader would say: “Nooooooooooooooooooooo!”

As soon as the rebel scum regroup from rescuing Han, Jedi falls to pieces.

Q: Why do the rebels ask Han, their freshly thawed flying ace, to lead the rebel ground attack on the Imperial shield generator that’s protecting Death Star II: Ha, We Had a Spare?

Q: Why do they assign the bombing run on Death Star II to Lando? OK, yes, Han Solo won his ship, the Millennium Falcon, from Lando in a card game or something, but Lando’s recent job experience is as the administrator of a mining facility on the planet Bespin. (“If we are to take out the Death Star — again, yes — we’ll need someone with nerves of steel and a thorough understanding of the galactic tax code who knows how to take advantage of the incentives for tibana gas extraction facilities, which the Imperial Senate seems unlikely to renew at this juncture.”)

A: Because this is a movie, and moreover, a movie primarily for kids. Fair enough. But why then does Ford spend so many scenes shrugging and mugging and bugging his eyes? The moment that seems to foreshadow his death — minute 53, when he looks at the Falcon and says to Leia, “I just got a funny feeling, like I’m not going to see her again” — is Ford’s most convincing line reading of the film. It’s the only time he’s playing the arc he wants to play.

Imagine for a moment that the same strain of insanity that led Warner Bros. executives to envision Superman III, one of Jedi‘s competitors in the summer of 1983, as a Richard Pryor vehicle, had led Lucas to recast the role of Han Solo with Chevy Chase. What would that movie have looked like?

The correct answer is that it would be identical in every way to the Return of the Jedi we all saw. Harrison Ford is Chevy Chase in this movie. Whether this was an artistic choice or simply Ford’s unwillingness to conceal his boredom, Han Solo has been reborn as a neutered, hapless dad. Even his haircut is 70 percent less cool than it was in Empire. “Hey, it’s me!” he reassures Luke, seconds before stepping on a twig that gives his position away to an Imperial soldier. When it comes to guerilla warfare, Han Solo is one hell of a space pilot.

Ford’s voiceover for the original release cut of Blade Runner — which he’d famously made as dull as possible in the hope the producers who’d demanded it over director Ridley Scott’s objections would reject it as unusable — is better than his bored line readings in Jedi. His performance in the pilloried Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than his performance in Jedi.

You know what’s light years better than his performance in Jedi? His swaggering star turn in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom only a year later. The violence and unpredictability of Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom is everything that Jedi‘s emasculated, minivan-driving, twig-stepping, Ewok-hugging, freely-sharing-his-feelings Han Solo isn’t. Same with the movie, which feels tense and dangerous and utterly bonkers. (And more than a little — what’s that word? — racist, but no more so than The Phantom Menace.) The point is that sneering, calculating, first-shooting, Nerf-herding Han Solo was still kicking around inside of Ford, but Ford wanted to save him for Indiana Jones. You can’t blame him, really. After the triumph of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas never really allowed Han Solo to become unfrozen.

Lucas has always been obsessed with control. After Star Wars, he risked his shirt to finance the three-times-as-costly The Empire Strikes Back himself so he could retain complete creative control along with sequel and merchandising rights — and take notes from nobody. Indeed, Lucas paid for the latter five of the six extant theatrical, live-action Star Wars movies out of his own deeper-than-a-sarlacc’s-belly pocket. They are as indie, in the most literal sense of the term, as it is possible for indie films to get. This means that all the fart and whoops-I-stepped-in-shit jokes in The Phantom Menace are there because they’re an essential part of Lucas’s precious creative vision. If he’s got a motto for Star Wars, it’s No Child Left Behind.

Last week fans thrilled to a black-and-white photo from the first table read of the script for Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII — which, if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, was penned by Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in addition to writing and directing many films that’ve probably sold fewer lunchboxes: Body Heat, The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, etc. Kasdan was in the photo. Fresh young faces Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Domhnall Gleeson were there. Familiar but unrecognizable faces (because usually they’re behind digital or physical masks, you see) Peter Mayhew and Andy Serkis, too. Oscar Isaac, the brilliant star of the brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis, showed up. And Abrams and R2-D2, watching from an open packing crate just outside the circle of chairs. (Droids get much affection but no respect.) Also present: Original trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and, most surprising of all, 71-year-old Ford.

The cosmic generational comedown of the prequels remains fresh in our memories. The last and least terrible of them, Revenge of the Sith, hit theaters nine years ago this month, which means any Blade Runner–type critical reconsideration suggesting that perhaps we judged George Lucas’s busy, noisy, lifeless latter-day movies too harshly would’ve happened by now. What enthusiasm there is for the upcoming films — and there is a lot — is on account of the still-strong residual affection for the original movies, though Lucas can’t stop tinkering with them. And because Abrams seems like he just might have a clue how to inject some life back into Star Wars, as his two Star, er, Trek films have demonstrated.

And because of the return of the original cast.

Don’t squander this opportunity to restore balance to the force, J.J. Abrams. The last thing the tarnished Star Wars brand needs now is another bored and noncommittal Harrison Ford performance. (If he wants to walk on and transform into a werewolf, like he did in Anchorman 2, that’d be fine.) The pattern set by the first two trilogies is that in the first chapter, a mentor is sacrificed: Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope, Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. In fact, Qui-Gon’s slaying by Darth Maul, and the thrilling lightsaber duel surrounding it — more athletic than the one in Empire — is one of only a handful of scenes in the entire seven-hour prequel trilogy that achieves any emotional heft. The big Obi-Wan vs. Anakin fight two movies later, wherein Anakin sustains the injuries that will result in his rebirth as that mouth-breathing cyborg Darth Vader, needed to feel exponentially more dire than that earlier melee, given its significance in the saga. It didn’t.

But then, Anakin lived — in the literal sense, anyway. And death is powerful. Especially in a genre where it’s so rare and reversible.

To save Han Solo, we have to kill him.

Search your feelings. You know it to be true.


The Wookiee Wins: Meet the Director of the Chewbacca Doc That Conquered Kickstarter

Understandably, Peter Mayhew is not as well-known as Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill. But W. Ryan Ziegler wants to change that. The first-time filmmaker is now raising money on Kickstarter for Standing in the Stars: The Peter Mayhew Story, a documentary about the 7-foot-3 actor who played Chewbacca in the original Star Wars films. Mayhew needs attention now more than ever; after attending one more Star Wars convention, he’ll undergo an unprecedented series of knee-replacement surgeries. Ziegler’s film is also his way of helping the actor launch a comeback. Ziegler has already surpassed his Kickstarter’s $42,000 goal, and, with four days to go, has raised $52,700. We talked to him about his project’s ambitious goals, how much exposure Zach Braff and Spike Lee gave him, and why we should just let the Wookiee win already.

How did you learn of Mr. Mayhew’s condition, and how did you come into his story?

I learned of his condition a few years ago. In addition to being a filmmaker, I know [Mayhew’s] family well. I have visited his home a few times, and when I visited there in January, we talked about bringing friends, family, and fans along on this next giant step in Peter’s life.

The last convention will show the lives he’s touched. Alternately, I think more stories will emerge during interviews, recovery, and the first show [he attends] once he’s back on his feet. That’s where we’ll get a real feel for Peter’s strength and the huge yet tight-knit community that is his part of the Star Wars universe.

Given that a good part of this project is Mr. Mayhew’s final convention before his surgery, how do you plan on approaching your subjects? Obviously you’ll want to show how much Mayhew’s fans love and support him. But I imagine you’ll also have to avoid being too maudlin. Or do you see the film as a project to help Mr. Mayhew in his recovery first, and something for everyone else afterward?

In my opinion, the support of the fans is more than just driving the documentary, it’s also driving Peter to press through this surgery. Between the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers and the regulars on the convention circuit, Peter and his wife, Angie, have no shortage of friends. Through their time at conventions, their nonprofit, the Peter Mayhew Foundation, and their work with Make-A-Wish, they’ve touched hundreds of thousands of lives. These same friends, fans, and family have had a huge impact on Peter’s life.

Are you a big Star Wars fan?

I enjoyed the films, but until recently did not consider myself a part of the fandom. In researching for this project, and being included in the family’s day-to-day, I have developed a tremendous respect for the fans. In particular, the 501st [Legion] have really stood out as the most inspiring, intriguing, and impressive family of fans I could have imagined.

People of all ages, spanning generations of Star Wars fans, have ways of relating to [Mayhew]. Diehards know the details of his character, and appreciate the subtlety of his iconic gait. Older fans remember who they took to see it for the first time. Younger fans have seen the movies and watched the animated series where Peter’s voice was added to Chewbacca’s vocal track. Infants have Wookiee the Chew artwork hanging from their nursery walls. Star Wars is ingrained in our society, and will continue to hold a special place in the hearts of generations to come. At conventions, everyone is impressed by [Mayhew’s] size, even seated. And no one walks away without a handshake and an autograph from our favorite gentle giant.

Why Kickstarter? And what do you think about the ongoing argument about the influence of celebrity on Kickstarter (i.e., whether celebrities who use Kickstarter to fund their projects can bring more eyes to other projects)?

Kickstarter was a great platform because the Mayhews live among the fans and interact daily with them. They live their lives publicly and, as such, really wanted to find a way to share what they were going through with anyone who was interested.

More broadly, in my experience, celebrities that throw their clout at any business can do nothing but help it grow. I don’t think it’s taking away from the little Kickstarter projects as much as it’s bringing more people to the Kickstarter platform by having celebrities host their ideas there. Through Kickstarter analytics, I can tell you that very little of our support came from [the] Discovery [feature] on Kickstarter as compared to the direct outside support we received from [Mayhew’s] fan base across the world.

Have you reached out to Mayhew’s co-stars for support, or interviews?

His co-stars have shown a lot of support, and Lucasfilm has given us the go-ahead on our project. But beyond that, we have not reached out to the industry a lot yet.

How did you plan to film Mayhew’s medical procedures and recovery? It’s a delicate matter.

The doctors are all in, and the engineers behind the prosthetics have worked tirelessly for months to reach this point. We’ve been allowed a lot of clearance when it comes to filming the medical side due to the rarity of this sort of surgery. Gigantism is treatable, and so the number of giants in the world is falling. From my research, I have yet to find another account of a giant going through this process. Everything used in the surgery is custom. Even the hardware for cutting through bone had to be custom-made for Peter’s surgery. The stakes are high, but everyone knows to let the Wookiee win. Peter has already allowed the fans to see him struggle for two years getting in and out of a wheelchair. The idea of filming his recovery is not intrusive but empowering to Mayhew.


Gingerbread Goes Science Fiction & Fantasy

A picture perfect replica of the All Terrain Armored Transport Vehicle from Star Wars done in gingerbread

Tired of the usual gingerbread houses studded with gumdrops, and fairy tale castles covered in white, jism-like frosting? Well, here’s a new collection of structures made of inedibly dry gingerbread cookies that the rest of us can get behind, especially sci-fi and fantasy fans.


Bruce Wayne’s mansion? You got it, with Batman perched on top, brooding, and a snowperson out front.

Yesterday, Buzzfeed put up a magnificent collection of 20 crazy gingerbread structures, with the themes borrowed from popular literature and the movies. The set ran the gauntlet from Tron to Star Wars to Doctor Who to Lord of the Rings, and yes there was a preponderance of Harry Potter stuff.

Good internet image searching, Buzzfeed! (See next page for more Star Wars stuff we dug up ourselves.)

Fork in the Road has its own literary gingerbread expert in Jessica Goodman, who put up our own collection of gingerbread “houses” with historical and geographic import. But don’t look on Buzzfeed for a link.

Thanks to Tracy Van Dyk, our San Francisco correspondent for only one more month, for the link.

Boasting interior lighting, an edible model of Hogwarts

And turn page for more Star Wars gingerbread that we found in 10 mins of Googling!