As if my past mutterings on the subject weren’t enough of a clue, I’ll cop to the fact that I have a love-hate relationship with the Star Wars franchise. But here, in 2020, Disney+ has another season of the The Mandalorian out, whose popularity hasn’t waned a bit. At least this time the merch for The Mandalorian is actually in stores now. Here’s your little heartthrob so you can SQUEEE over him while I grouch for the rest of this blog post.
My love-hate of Star Wars: On the love side, the universe is cool, the films are mostly top-notch in pacing and definitely top-notch in effects, and the Star Wars universe has the strongest personality of any franchise ever. I have always at least found Star Wars movies to be interesting enough to hold my attention. When the series has a good moment, it really shines.
On the hate side… I’m sorry, but Star Wars meant something entirely different before the 1990s. We have since started considering Star Wars to be “just for geeks.” Before the 1990s, a “geek” was somebody good with computers. Star Wars was for goofballs. I remember too much about the time when it was still popcorn entertainment for Boomers, when Star Wars was an awkward kid whose voice hadn’t changed. Try to understand: Star Wars came out in 1977, smack in the middle of the disco era. Here is how I witnessed it firsthand being received:
You see all the people in those clammy polyester iron-on Tshirts dancing to the disco remix that we heard from every radio until we started smashing the radios with mallets? The people with C-3PO head masks doing jerky robot dances? Darth Vader on Oprah? Jedis on ice? Rapping C-3PO?
Yeah, it was THAT dorky! And more! This is just what I can find preserved on the Internet. There’s a lot more stored in the ol’ BetaMax in my brain rotting in senility, for if I told you of these things, you would not believe me because I can’t dig up a link for it. Such as that time Harlan Ellison wrote a review / essay on the brand new Star Wars phenomenon called:
“Luke Skywalker is a Nerd and Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs”
The time: August 1977. The place: The Los Angeles Free Press (AKA “The Freep”), which belonged to a family of local city tabloids found in every city; these were the highest-quality of artisanal journalism you could find at the time. The man: Golden Age SF author Harlan Ellison. Even though I had to acknowledge that he was a grouchy old poop in the eulogy I wrote for him, Ellison was a strong influence on me in childhood. Gosh, what gave that away, except the way I yank my own entrails out to write with a primitive honesty that sprays you in the face with blood? Bottom line, Harlan’s article in The Freep was what kept me sane through the early dork years of Star Wars fandom.
It’s tough to find a copy of a 43-year-old rag on the Internet in any archive, but I have this magical old-fashioned device called a “book” at hand. More specifically Harlan Ellison’s Watching, a compendium of his film essays and criticism from all of The Freep, Starlog, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. One of the highlights of said tome is his essay, the aforementioned “Luke Skywalker is a Nerd and Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs.”
So what is the gist of this? Ellison, ever the insufferable enfant terrible, considered George Lucas’ major breakthrough to be space opera and not science fiction (the franchise literally bills itself as an epic space opera now). To be sure, he also calls it much worse, but Ellison doesn’t really resort to name-calling until he can point to specific flaws first.
1. He reveals that he was paid $300 (yes he quotes this price) to speak at Space-Con IV at the LA Convention Center, where he encounters the first wave of Star Wars fanatics and the first time at a sci-fi-con he did not run into Trekkies. Indeed, the very birth of the Trekkie-Jedi rivalry may have been seeded at this convention.
2. Long story short, he’s on stage on a panel at that con with colleague author Alan Dean Foster, as Harlan voiced criticism of Star Wars first, saying among other things that it’s full of outer space sound effects when we all know there isn’t any air in space. Alan, next in line, retorted that he had visited the Star Wars set while filming and raised this exact issue, only to have George Lucas tell him “There’s a lot of money tied up in this movie and people expect things in space to go ‘boom’ when they explode, so they’re going ‘boom.'” End of discussion, but footnoted ¶.
3. He relates that he was in a record store in Hollywood picking up an album he’d ordered when the clerk asked him if he’d seen “IT” (THE movie!) yet, and when Ellison expresses annoyance at this assumption, two kids in the store checked out to go out to the parking lot to key his car.
4. He relates that Time magazine was so determined to print only positive news about Star Wars that they’d asked yet another sci-fi author, Ben Bova (big name at the time) for a quote, then put completely false words into his mouth after he’d criticized it. Ellison tracked Bova down and read him the printed version, which outraged Bova enough to write the magazine in protest. The fabrication goes uncorrected to this day.
Then Ellison, after quoting one other critic brave enough to stand against the hype, lights his torch and leads the backlash by calling Star Wars “cheap entertainment,” “shallow,” “a story without people,” and “a film without soul.” He takes a big hearty swipe at the fandom around it, more a symptom of America circa 1977 than Star Wars itself.
The real problem, as always, was the fandom
America at this time was first beginning to come into the kind of anti-intellectualism we’re all groaning about now. At the time when Star Wars came out, everybody around you beat you over the head with the incontrovertible FACT that Star Wars was “the return of entertainment.” Shakespeare? Garbage! Star Trek? Go cry in your safe space, liberal! Citizen Kane? Fit for kindling! Star Wars is officially the First Movie. We got that for months. The narrative was that we intellectuals had ruined entertainment with all our bothersome words and thinking, and Star Wars saved the world from us.
I liked Star Wars. I like chocolate cake too, but if soldiers came to my house every day to hold me down and force a pound of chocolate cake up my ass with a battering ram, then I have to confess, some of my negative feelings about the situation would reflect poorly upon the otherwise innocent chocolate cake. I’m only human over here.
Recall that footnote ¶.
One thing I hate for sure is being pandered to. That Lucas quote about things going ‘boom’ back there? 2001: A Space Odyssey had come out in 1968, nine years and a country mile before Star Wars, and Kubrick had kept space eerily silent. I don’t like directors giving me a ‘boom’ because they think my tiny precious brain is too stupid to understand there’s no sound in a vacuum. I don’t like it any more than when movies show me raining cyberpunk code letters because they think I’m too stupid to understand computer hacking when I already saw Sneakers seven years prior.
So can you all understand that? I, and the late Harlan Ellison, and a handful of other fans, liked Star Wars. Not “worship,” not “revere,” not “canonize,” just “like.” We all hated the fanatic fandom. By the time the sequel had rolled around, Ellison had even thawed by then enough to praise The Empire Strikes Back. As did I, by then.
I find your lack of exposure to the dork side disturbing!
We will never run out of dorky Star Wars filk, so here, have some more on the house, like what happens when Darth Vader invades a renaissance fair:
Here is a Levi’s jeans commercial which came out shortly after Star Wars and is obviously influenced by it:
Let’s not forget Hardware Wars, which came out as a parody in 1978, beating Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs by nine years and a country mile:
Oh yeah, all the R2-D2 and C-3PO PSAs we had to sit through. Yeah, robots don’t have lungs – they say so in the commercial – so how is R2 smoking? That sure was worth all the bran cells this killed so you kids could have your Mandelorian, hope you’re happy!
Yes, I mean all the PSAs:
Wait, where you going, you haven’t heard “Chewie the Rookie Wookie” yet: