My final entry for the Things I Learned From The Movies blogathon is going to focus on the movie that I think may have had the deepest impact on me over time. To be a Star Wars fan now is like saying you root for the Yankees (a team now jokingly called the Evil Empire)- it’s almost cliche or anti-climactic. Of course, some say with a roll of their eyes, another one of THEM, as if fans of the saga are all overly-verbose zealots. I’m not here to debate fandom and its varying levels- I’m here to talk about the wisdom I’ve gleaned from George Lucas and his team.
I recently discussed how the Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights series helped me become a better writer, so if you want background on that, feel free to peruse my literary ramblings. This time I want to focus on more of what the series did to me as a person. The mentor character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, admits to Luke that he did bend the truth a little when he explained the fate of his father, saying “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.”
It took years for that piece of wisdom to really grasp me. Growing up, I focused on the more well-known Yoda quote from The Empire Strikes Back: “Try not- do or do not. There is no try.” And that was a motto I needed when striving to achieve things I thought were beyond my reality’s expectations or personal limitations. One of the things I love about the series is that I can pick it up and look at it in different ways at different times and find new ways to be inspired depending on my place in life.
My first memory of Star Wars is actually very fuzzy. I have a recollection of R2-D2 in a place with strange white walls and floors. For some reason, the memory is linked to this idea that my grandfather was in some kind of futuristic hospital that used robots to care for patients. Years later, this memory became more clear- at one point, my grandfather WAS in a hospital (probably with the aforementioned clean aesthetic) and The Empire Strikes Back must have been on television. Why these memories became mixed to the point where I assumed Pops was chilling out with everyone’s favorite astromech droid, I’ll never know. It must have been around the late 80s, so I would have been around 5 and will chalk it up to my brain still developing. But it absorbed Star Wars just fine. It kinda became a trend.
Years later, I found Star Wars filling a void in my life. My family had moved after 4th grade to North Carolina and for a year, I had my ass kicked by kids who were not to happy to have a Yankee shirt wearing new guy enter their midst. I missed my family and my friends and being remotely near civilization. Ironically, I didn’t appreciate being so close to an Air Force base until after we moved- now I miss hearing the rumble of training exercises occurring above us. By 6th grade, we had returned to New Jersey and moved to a small town adjacent to where my father grew up. Sadly, the Jersey kids there were (for the most part) as welcoming as the southern kids who had purposely shoved me during football games into the patches of pointed burs.
One day, my mom took us to the local library and recommended I watch this old movie series. It was Star Wars, and I devoured it. At 12, I could kinda relate to a blonde haired, blue-eyed kid stuck in a place he hates. I was enchanted by this space-age take on the Arthurian legends and when my mom said they had made a couple more, I begged to go back and get the others. I can still remember, crystal-clear 21 years later, the cool of the air conditioning and the smell of the fresh paint in our new house as I popped in the “next” installment of the series.
I put that in quotations because my mom said the second movie was Return of the Jedi.
I guess it makes sense. Luke became a Jedi trainee in A New Hope. So it sounds kinda like he returns in the sequel, right? She probably saw the movie once when they first came out or were re-released, but she didn’t know them well enough to accurately gauge the correct order. So you can imagine my shock and confusion when the movie opens with Han in a giant block of ice and Leia, undercover! Wait, weren’t they just getting medals in the last one? How’d Han end up at Jabba’s? What the hell….
The classic ‘I am your father!’ reveal? Sorta anti-climactic when Luke just sits down and asks Yoda if Darth Vader is his father. It also made the Ickiest Moment In Geek History (Prior To Game of Thrones) even more squrim worthy. Leia is his SISTER! Why is she KISSING HIM!?
So it was off to the library and I finally picked up Empire, which by now has become, alongside Back to the Future and Field of Dreams, part of my ever-rotating Top 3 Favorite Films. And Empire was just as dramatic in some ways because now I knew how the series ended. I needed to know what the hell happened between the good guys winning and then all of the heroes being completely different at the start of Jedi. Luke’s wearing black and using a different lightsaber and HOLYCRAPWHENDIDHELEARNTOUSETHEFORCE?! Han’s willing to be a general now? Why are Leia and the rebels not on Yavin in that badass Mayan temple they nearly got blown up in? WHO IS THIS EMPEROR GUY?!
This began a very important writing habit for me, one that Bart still scolds me for to this day: reading the ending of the book first, then reading through to see how the storyteller constructed the build-up. In some ways, the story remains just as (if not MORE) interesting because I am compelled to see how the pieces fit. Hey, if Stephen King says it’s a good practice, it’s good enough for me. Sorry Bart.
The more I watched Luke, the more I understood and connected with him. This is a guy who learns that his greatest enemy is his own blood, and that his father issues will follow him for life. He is literally taunted to give in to his anger and warned by others that he’s just like his dad. This was, for the longest time, one of my biggest fears- that my temper would become just as bad as my father’s.
Every time I saw Luke throw away his lightsaber and embrace his life as Jedi, denying the seductive nature of the dark side, I felt like cheering. It was oddly empowering. And every time I found myself in a position to really give in to my anger, that scene would flash in my mind’s eye. It still does. The Dark Side is this promise that the easy path is the one that can solve all of life’s problems. The trick is, it’s also the easiest way of losing one’s self, one’s identity and morals.
I devoured the expanded universe books by Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, Kevin J. Anderson and Aaron Allston. I practiced modified sword-fighting with Bart in our backyards, hoping one day to find a fencing teacher. When I read George Lucas was influenced heavily by Joseph Campbell and Arthurian legends and other topics, those became my new homework to study. Then I started to focus on the behind-the-scenes stories of how the original trilogy was made. Filmmaking, it seemed, required so many skills. George’s path to making Star Wars a reality was almost as difficult as Luke’s path to defeating the Empire.
When I was a freshman in high school, the prequels were coming! I was able to convince the computer room teacher to hook up her computer to the television so we could download and view the Phantom Menace teaser together as soon as it dropped. The room was dead silent as it played and excited chatter followed the credits. To this day, I love that trailer and the energy that it generated. Hearing the Force theme just gave me goosebumps all over. It was a brilliantly constructed promotional video that gave away JUST enough to get fans buzzing. And we buzzed like a billion happy bees.
It was around this time that I met my friends Joey and Ally and Jessie May on theforce.net, a Star Wars fansite. It was a cool way of meeting like-minded people to talk about something we all loved. There were trolls but in my memory, they seemed fewer in number than today’s unlimited uncouth horde. Maybe I’m just getting old. They are dear friends to me now, but at the time, we were just anonymous names from around the country feeding off each other’s excitement over more Jedi hijinks.
It was also around this time that Bart and I decided to write our first Star Wars story together. Rather than focus on Luke, Han, Leia and the gang, we created original characters and situations outside “canon” (official movie chronology). By the time we were done with these baby steps into narrative, we realized if we abandoned the Star Wars galaxy and created our own, we could actually try and publish the stories. Obviously that was SEVERAL drafts and a couple of re-imaginings ago, but the initial steps were because George’s characters made us want to create our own. I’ll always be grateful for that as I love our characters and now understand why Mr. Lucas is so protective of his.
Trash-talking the prequels is easy when looking at them with hindsight. As a filmmaker and teacher, I’ve learned to keep my personal feelings and professional feelings separate. It’s clear to me now, as a filmmaker, that George spent a lot more time devoted to what technology and tricks he could develop rather than on the story. I respect that he did movies that he felt he earned the right to make, though I wish he had a few people to check against some of his story choices. The dialogue was often clunky, the characters could have been fleshed out more and in general, they felt uneven.
I don’t care. I still love them. I was just discussing the scene in High Fidelity where Rob, fresh from the stinging wounds of a break-up, decides to re-stack his music collection ‘biographically’, putting albums together by the point where they were listened to in his life. That’s Star Wars for me. I can’t hate Attack of the Clones because all I can think about is how I saw the movie on opening night with my best friends and how we would see that and Spider-man seemingly every other day for the entire summer. To this day, Spidey remains my all-time rewatch in theaters at six times, but Clones was also a repeater, with five separate viewings. These were the films we bonded over. They came out right as we were graduating high school. I was dating for the first time and going through the usual teenager growing pains in some ways, I kinda got Anakin’s frustrations (although the whining was definitely off-putting).
Revenge of the Sith was bittersweet because by that point, my friends had all scattered. Bart and Jess were abroad, my friend Kat was studying in upstate New York and preparing to move, my friend Matt had moved to California and it left me feeling slightly isolated. There is the memory of seeing it for the third time in a small theater in California when we surprised Matt with a visit, before relaxing on the grass outside the small theater in the California sun. It was one of the last times we were all together. But at least it was a good memory.
I saw Revenge one final time on a dark and cold night before it left theaters. I remember walking out and feeling cold not from the chill in the air but because I had really grown as a Star Wars fan because of my friends, seen the previous film multiple times with them and I was now leaving the final Star Wars film alone on a quiet night. It felt wrong, but George said he was done, that the series had come full circle. I guess I would be okay with that.
Some time around 2011, I had reached a breaking point with Star Wars. The books had become so dark and different that I couldn’t enjoy them anymore. The characters I loved felt like they were being changed for no reason. I couldn’t get into the Clone Wars cartoon, which seemed to target younger audiences (I was proven wrong when I watched it years later). I felt oversaturated. So I decided that for one year, I would avoid watching the movies, stop reading the books and leave it all behind. If I came back to it 365 days later and enjoyed it, then it was meant to remain a passion. If not, it would be a cherished part of my past.
Well…I’m still here talking about the Skywalkers and the Solos, so you know how that went. There’s a quote from Qui-Gon in The Phantom Menace that has also become equally important to me as the years have gone on: “Your focus determines your reality.” As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate and relate to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan almost as much as I do Luke. When the story first entered my life, my point of view was that of a heartsick kid, looking desperately off to the horizon, wondering when I would meet the people who would change my life. In college and after graduation, I found myself chaffing with some of the choices I’d made in my career in the way Anakin did. Now, as a teacher approaching his wedding and hopefully the start of a family, I’m understanding the importance of that certain point-of-view.
Like my Back to the Future post discussed, I used to have a hard time understanding my parents. They were a cipher I just couldn’t grasp. My sisters were younger and at times frustrating. My friends would often make choices I just couldn’t get behind. The world would throw challenges at me and I often felt overwhelmed or betrayed. This is where time and perspective have allowed me to grow.
My focus has now become more about understanding the problem and not just fixing it. That was Anakin’s downfall in many ways- he thought he had to stop death from coming and in doing so, his choices caused problems to arise. He became engrossed with becoming powerful without realizing he had already accomplished so much. His fears dictated his emotional paranoia. Having gone through my own struggles to stay afloat during the economic depression in 2008, I can now look back and see that while I was forced to make difficult choices, I also beat myself up endlessly wondering what I had done and was doing wrong. This only fed my depression, leading to my own personal dark side- feeling pointless. I didn’t become my father, as I used to fear. I was on the verge of giving up.
Within a year, I was in the Writers Guild of America, working for a new network, able to afford things like new clothes and healthier food. Unlike the self-defeating paranoia I had when I taught the first time, this time I realized I was actually pretty good at handling students. This was why, in 2012, I felt like maybe I could make the teaching thing work at my current job. I became focused not on the problem itself- my uncertainty on if the choice was right- but instead on how to maximize the circumstances that deal with the problem. Basically I focused on how to be a better writer, a better filmmaker and eventually a better teacher. I know that I’m far from being some kind of enlightened Jedi Master of life- I’ve had plenty of reminders that I still have much to learn- but it’s progress.
That’s part of the real reason for this blog- it’s a chance for me to be mindful of the main elements of my life- the movies that I focus on, the heart and health and people in my life that keep me going and the work I have left to do. It’s not easy- it’s real hard work. That’s why I figured it would be good to monitor my “certain point of view”.
If The Force Awakens and the recent Rogue One trailer are any indication, I still can find a new lens to view the characters through. So many fans decried a black man as a stormtrooper, and worse, as a lead in Star Wars. Even more vocal were the nitpicking fans who claimed Rey, the kickass young heroine of Force Awakens, and Jyn Erso, the lady lead of Rogue One, were only cast as a way to A) bring in more female fans and thus more money and B) to appease feminists who claim the movies were to male-centric.
This embarrasses me to no end, as it clearly reflects the backward thinking I had assumed had been left behind in the 1950s or 60s. Some of these ardent trolls also went on to cite numerous instances of Rey being a “Mary Sue” character that has no flaws in another attempt to…well, I never quite figured that out because usually by that point I was too infuriated to keep reading. This was crucial for me to note though as new generations are being raised with the saga in their lives. Why shouldn’t these kids have characters of all types to look up to? For crying out loud, several of the main characters aren’t even human! As a teacher, I find it imperative to be cognizant of this need. Diverse representations of characters, of story elements and of genre create not only a better educated student of Storytelling, but it allows for more interesting developments in the movies being told.
Would I have come to this conclusion without Star Wars? I’d like to think so. But the process is certainly accelerated when you find prejudiced or close-minded thinking in your own safe place. It’s the same reason I fully supported the anti-harassment policies at ComicCon- there is no reason for negative behavior in what’s meant to be a place of refuge from the Larger World that’s out there. Fandoms should be a joyful thing, not a judgmental thing. If our focus determines or reality and that our truths are affected by our point of view, I fear for what goes through the minds of the people who act out in such disappointing ways.
I’m happy to be a filmmaker, even if it is only a part-time gig these days. I will always call myself a storyteller, so long as I have words left to write and someone to share them with. I often remind my students that when George Lucas was on set in Tunisia, the location was hit with one of the worst rainstorms in over a century, resulting in the destruction of countless props, costumes and set-pieces. Rather than take it as a sign to give up, he was able to find a way of making the film process work. It may not have been the way he hoped or planned, but the end result speaks for itself. If a legacy is what we leave behind, then Star Wars will be George Lucas’s piece of eternity. And for that, I’m grateful.
LESSONS I’VE LEARNED FROM STAR WARS
*When friends and families are at risk, you step up.
*I’d rather have (and did eventually win over) a distressing damsel than a damsel in distress
*Be careful what you charge headlong into.
*The odds of successfully navigating an asteroid may be 3,720 to 1…but I’ve beaten them before.
*Courage is no good if it gets everyone killed.
*Don’t get cocky. There’s always someone else out there ready to try and shoot you down.
*Friends sometimes come in different shapes and sizes, but never underestimate them.
*Sometimes they smell worse on the outside. Sometimes you’re in for a surprise.
*Scoundrels can be nice people and nice people can be scoundrels.
*Don’t work for a person who sits alone in a dark room, cackling to themselves as they stare into nothingness. You’re asking for it if you do.
*Just because it walks like a Muppet and talks like a Muppet doesn’t mean it IS a Muppet
*That hyperdrive you thought you fixed will break at the worst time. Be ready.
*Be ready to improvise.
*The Fool may be the hero of the story in mythology but be ready to see them stumble and make mistakes before they save the day.
*Even a blind smuggler can kill a master bounty hunter once and a while.
*Sometimes it’s possible to find a little light in the darkest of places.
*Your parent’s destiny is not YOUR destiny.
*Failure to believe is often the root of failure.
*Pass on what you have learned.
*Finish what you begin.
Until next time,