One Man’s Brave Year Without STAR WARS

THE MIDDLEMAN creator and LOST producer Javier Grillo-Marxauch spent a whole year without STAR WARS. And it may have made him a better person.

Nothing hangs over us like Star Wars. Just yesterday I was noting the fact that in the final week of 2010 I can’t go a day without seeing some sort of Star Wars nonsense turn up in my Twitter and RSS feeds. I’m not talking officially licensed Lucasfilm stuff like the Mondo posters, but all kinds of oddness. Mash up t-shirts, steampunk dolls, minimalist posters, video montages, songs and other shoddy, hit-whoring ephemera turn up every single day of the week on sites happy to feed calorie-free crap to readers as long as you can get Star Wars in the title. It’s endless, and it’s omnipresent.

I have long suspected that my negative feelings about Star Wars could heal if it were just possible to avoid George Lucas’ creation for a little while. In my line of work that’ll never happen, but Javier Grillo-Marxuach, one of the creators of the TV show Middleman and a one-time Lost producer, tried to do just that. A hardcore Star Wars junkie - he had seen the Prequel Trilogy almost 50 times - Grill0-Marxauch went cold turkey for a year without Star Wars. And what he learned is intriguing and true.

He wrote up his findings at i09, and I recommend that you read them there. But there are some interesting bits I’ll excerpt. Like me, Javier has found Star Wars’ omnipresence in the geek world to be a serious irritant:

Where before, a character’s despair at being sent to the “Spice Mines of Kessel” sparked an electrical storm of imagination (“Spice? Like oregano? How does one MINE oregano? And why are the working conditions so deplorable?”), now every corner of that universe has been strip-quarried for character, incident, and action-figure design. As a seven year-old, Star Wars was a Tesla coil of wonder. Thirty-four years later, it’s more like Mervyn Peake’s Ghormenghast: a hulking repository of arcana picked over by an ever-expanding army of courtiers who have lost sight of the original principle. The spice Mines of Kessel now have a gift shop, Starbucks and an Etsy tent where locals sell homemade tees with delightfully witty silkscreens of Wilhuff Tarkin in the style of Shephard Fairey.

The bones have been picked clean. It’s never been more obvious than seeing Slashfilm run a mash-up t-shirt combining Star Wars with The Wizard of Oz, but taking nothing from either property into account. Chewbacca is the Cowardly Lion because… well, because he’s furry, I guess. C3P0 is bizarrely the Scarecrow as opposed to the Tin Man. And Darth Vader is Toto. No clue why. I suspect neither did the designer; we’ve entered a period where things get thrown together just because the creator knows those two properties have followings.

Then Javier turns his eye to something that’s been bothering me a while: how Star Wars has kind of ruined storytelling:

There was a long ago and far, far away time — I think it was the early nineties — when a character in a film saying “I have a bad feeling about this,” or “That’s no moon, that’s a space station,” was an adorable grace note. Today, entire episodes of TV and whole feature films are devoted to Star Wars references. Even the most high-minded and hard-edged ten o’clock procedurals manage to get in a winkety-wink-wink. Worse yet, the franchise’s own prequels, sequels and equals — all the attendant films, books, TV shows and graphic novels — are equally full of inside jokes and callbacks to the original. The Hutt isn’t just eating its own tail, it’s serving it to itself on a silver platter with drawn butter and a finger bowl.
Terry Gilliam once said of America that it robs people of their dreams and replaces them with its own. I now wonder if the same isn’t true about the entertainment industry’s relationship to Star Wars. How many modern blockbusters seem like cargo cult versions of that childhood inspiration? How many times do I have to walk out of a theater thinking “I just paid to see a laundry list of beats that “worked” in Star Wars” before wondering if our collective doorway to archetypal storytelling hasn’t become a Trojan Horse?

I don’t blame George Lucas for creating the blockbuster. I don’t blame him for making a cinematic world where special effects are more important than story. I blame him for introducing so many sub-creative people to the concept of Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey and the monomyth, which has become the boring, standard and lamely default mode for almost all genre film and  television.

There’s a lot more from Javier; it’s a lengthy and compelling piece. The thing is that when I revisit the original films all on their own there’s much to like. It’s easy to remember why these stories, why these characters and why this universe took up so much of my mental real estate for so long. But that real estate has been surrounded by cheap ghettos and shoddy cash ins and pointless, boring riffs. The luster wears off.

How about we take a break in 2011, internet? How about you keep your t-shirt that mashes Jabba the Hutt with Hungry Hungry Hippos to yourself until 2012. Let’s remember Star Wars as cinema and storytelling, not as an outlet for you to get your crappy Etsy stuff sold.