Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of The Middleman television series and a former producer on Lost, spent a whole year without Star Wars. Why would he do such a thing? And what did he learn from going cold turkey on Star Wars?
Thirteen months ago, during a prolonged bout with depression, I was visited — Ebenezer Scrooge-like — by a trio of revelations that changed the course of my life.
Back then, my palliative for emotional stress was to drag out my laser disc of The Empire Strikes Back. For years, anyone close to me would know I was wrestling the black dog if they could hear John Williams' Wagnerian chords in the background of a phone call. On this night, however, I popped in a DVD of Revenge of the Sith — for no reason other than my ongoing fascination with the densely populated, single-take, opening space battle sequence.
Two minutes and thirty seconds into this — my forty-seventh — viewing, I had the same disturbing thought from every viewing since my first (when I insisted on vacation that my father drive me from the far shores of Maui to see it opening weekend). It always came at the same moment; when the brilliant space battle choreographed by a hundred CGI artists — all presumably my age and inspired to creative careers by a shared vision of a weirdly democratic, yet profoundly aristocratic dreamland of glow-sword wielding superheroes and pistol-packin' everymen — is replaced by a poorly-composed close-up of Hayden Christensen reciting nonsensical dialogue against a green screen.
I was usually able put the thought aside... but on this night, it spoke with the basso profundo of a Dickensian apparition. The deep voice of an authority even bigger than James Earl Jones had been sent on a mission to take a flame thrower to my fandom.
It was Ghost of Christmas Past. This is what it said to me:
Schmuck. You saw The Phantom Menace six times in the theater, then invested in the letterboxed VHS when Uncle George announced there would be no DVD. You even sprang for the Japanese import Laserdisc because you convinced yourself the reason you don't enjoy it is that you missed out on something in the first dozen viewings. Then – like a dutiful Soviet-era Muscovite — you bought the DVD when Lucasfilm finally deigned to release it. You watched it some twenty more times because you thought you were in a bad mood — or looked away at the wrong time — the first twenty-five and just didn't "get it." Take Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Rinse and repeat.
It is time to face the truth.
You don't like these prequels and no amount of repeat viewing is going to change that.
There followed the shrill, sibilant voice of Christmas Present:
You have seen these six films more times than you have had sex.
OK. That's funny because it's sad, and sad because it's true. Let's move on to the Ghost of Christmas Future:
You have nothing left to learn here. You must spend a year without Star Wars. Only then will you understand.
"A YEAR without Star Wars? No scruffy-lookin' nerf-herdin' way! I'm a true believer!"
Yes, a True Believer.
Let me explain. For a decade-and-change, "George Lucas raped my childhood" has been the rallying cry of many a disaffected gen-x/yer whose dreams of a repeat performance of their age-of-ten-stand-up-and-cheer movie going experience were dashed by the prequels. To those who have said it, I have one thing to say, and it comes from the heart:
George Lucas didn't rape a goddamn thing. He GAVE me my childhood. He provided the fat, pale and sensitive boy I once was with a vibrant, imaginative and optimistic idea of what storytelling could be. George Lucas engineered a waking dream that evolved into an overwhelming desire to become a creator on my own right. I am where I am thanks, in great part, to George Lucas. I went to the University of Southern California film school because that's where he went. I make TV, films and comics because he showed me that it is possible. If I should ever meet the guy, I will shake his hand and thank him... then go about my business... without making further eye contact.
Like I said, I'm a True Believer. How could I spend a YEAR without Star Wars?
Some would argue the issue of artistic intent or lack thereof. They'd say the prequels were a cash grab. They'd ask "Who does George Lucas think he is to continually revisit and revise his work to sell it back to his fans?" Followed by "And did there really have to be that many Expanded Universe books?"
My answer to them is also simple. Who gives a shit?
Are we really entitled to have "the originals" at our disposal because we shelled out at a proto-multiplex back in 1977 and liked what we saw? The privilege to have a piece of artistic work at our fingertips, exactly the way we remember it, on-demand and in real-time, is so modern an idea that we have absolutely no way to say for certain to what it is that we have the right. No one has had that right at any other time in history. What makes us such special snowflakes?
So shut the door and have a seat, children. Here's a slice of reality pie: it's Uncle George's work. As much as we perceive it a vital part of our archetypal mindscape, he has the right to revise, expurgate, monetize, and three-dimensionalize to his heart's content, and there is nothing we can do about it. It just doesn't belong to us.
And yet — argued my Star Wars-loving soul, you CAN'T have a year without Star Wars! Is the pop-cultural air we breathe. Especially now that those of us between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five are becoming the writers, directors, producers and show-runners at the forefront of popular culture. The mythical language of Star Wars — aided and abetted by Joseph Campbell — is the DNA of many a modern creator's understanding of story and character. It is the double helix of current media, repeated endlessly in both jokes and references as well a generation's understanding of the gross anatomy of narrative.
The Ghosts had receded. It was now my intellect versus my soul. My intellect took the ball and ran with it:
Star Wars is the monomyth of Gens- X and Y: so pervasive that it occupies the mental volume whole genres did in the past. In some future accounting of late twentieth and early twenty-first century popular entertainment the term Star Wars could be spoken in the same way we now say "the Western." Star Wars isn't entertainment: it is a language, and anyone with access to the Internet, DVD, VHS, Super-8, or two cans attached by a string can share in the conversation.
As members of an audience, millions of us feel that Star Wars speaks to and for us. We made it a touchstone and a way of life. George Lucas may be rich enough to own half of Marin County, but we gave him our minds and money. In our gluttonous lust to replicate the exhilaration of a matinee from 1977, we demanded that his otherwise fun little film metastasize into so pervasive a chunk of the collective unconscious that Carl Jung now sports Mandalorian armor and flies a modified Firespray-31 attack cruiser turned slave ship.
And how in high unholy hell can I cite the make and model of Boba Fett's ship in conversation? The words "Mandalorian," "Firespray-31," or "Ewok" for that matter aren't in these films! Listen to your brain, nerd: you NEED a year without Star Wars!
Of course, the part of me that loves Star Wars wasn't letting go. These films helped me identify and cement my vocation. How could there be NOTHING left to learn about the craft of moviemaking from the scores of wizards involved in these films? How dare I?
Surely more repeat viewings were necessary... or maybe re-reading some of the ancillary works of the Expanded Universe (like the e-books set in the aftermath of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion of known space)...or the graphic novels a hundred and fifty years ABY... or maybe I needed to use my industry contacts to seek out some of those scripts for the long-rumored Star Wars drama series set in the criminal underbelly of Coruscant.
I finally heard myself. I was an addict. Extreme detox was the only way out.
The conditions coalesced quickly. I would spend a year without consuming any Star Wars-branded content (excluding the odd viral video or such impossible-to-miss things as billboards or cosplay at Comic-Con). No ifs ands or buts.
It wasn't as hard as I imagined. As someone who has struggled with weight and body image since age eight, deprivation is a welcome masochism. Becoming a manorexic of Star Wars is, frankly, a less daunting thought for me than renouncing the bread basket at the top of every meal.
I was, however, pained to decline a good friend's invite to see a new print of The Empire Strikes Back projected at L.A.'s revered Arclight Cinema with a special Q&A with Harrison Ford. Then again, two years earlier, I saw a new print of The Empire Strikes Back projected at L.A.'s revered Arclight Cinema with a special Q&A by Irvin Kershner. Fandom charges you for the same experience a billion times over while fooling you into believing you are getting special and exclusive content... and, shame on us, we shell out again and again.
Also, I had a previous and unbreakable engagement that night, which made the decision a lot easier. This would probably be a story of relapse had that not been the case.
For twelve months, I made a similar calculus every time the opportunity to consume Star Wars came along.
By and large my "year without Star Wars" passed without tears, debilitating anxieties or the black shakes of withdrawal... OK, except for the one night when I woke up at 4 A.M. and listened to Battle of the Heroes on my iPod, sue me...
...and after twelve months, I didn't hook up the Laserdisc player and drown my ongoing sorrows in The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars had quietly left the forefront of my mind — and now exists solely as a memory of the lightning-in-a-bottle event that crystallized my desire to do what I now do. It wasn't until a good month later that I casually popped in my DVD of Revenge of the Sith to show off my sound system to a visiting friend. Then I turned it off and went about my day, without giving it any further thought.
I know what you're thinking: "OK - you just spent endless words bragging about how you threw your metaphorical Emperor down the symbolic shaft of your personal Death Star, you wanna tell us what you learned so we can go dance with the Ewoks?"
Lesson #1: the longer I stay away from Star Wars, the more annoyed I am by its ubiquity.
In my willing estrangement from Luke Skywalker and his merry band of rebels, I came to value their small and very personal adventure in contrast to the massive cultural apparatus it spawned. It now seems absurd that a film as sparsely populated — one whose triumph of the imagination was to imply massive scope through the judicious use of production design, location and editing while telling a relatively small hero's journey story — has developed so overwhelming a cultural footprint.
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.
And you know why that is? Not because Uncle George is a bad man who loves filthy lucre — but because we demanded it.
Now comes Lesson #2. As the creator of a TV series regarded by detractors as a sixteen-car-pileup of geeky references without human meaning, I can only evoke the ancient Vulcan proverb "only Nixon could go to China" when I write the following line:
I'm sick and tired of all the inside jokes and references.
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?
In too many cases, the structure has become the content. Star Wars may have taught the Hero's Journey to entire generations, but it is our responsibility to use the paradigm and to forge something with its own emotional integrity. Structure should be armor — the protection that makes it safe to seek out originality in the dangerous tunnels where raw matter is buried — not a pop-culture sign post indicating where the emotional content would have gone in the hands of a writer with a broader frame of reference.
All creators imitate, emulate and steal. All maturing artists engage in a dialogue with what came before... but I can't think of a single instance in history when so many of us are so actively engaged in paying homage to a single work of art. Bluntly: we are all cribbing our best moves from the same two-hour movie and it has to stop. There just isn't enough meat on the carcass.
Lesson #3: my otaku-like obsession with the Star Wars universe cheapened the emotional force of the original.
The most important lesson I needed from Star Wars I learned when I lifted my index finger to the screen and exclaimed "I want to do that." A gifted visionary — under the right conditions, with the right collaborators and an openness to their feedback — can create transcendent art that will change lives. Everything else is candy. Sweet, delightful, and comforting, but no basis for what your people call "a life debt." After thirty-four years, I was ready to shed the spare tire around the metaphorical midriff of my mental space.
Lesson #4 was the toughest.
A few months ago, I received a package of DVDs of The Chronicle, a little-seen, low-budget sci-fi show I wrote for in the early naughties. After watching my episodes in a bout of unbridled Norma Desmond-osity I found myself uncharacteristically happy.
I shook hands with my younger self. I made peace with my flaws — the derivative plotting, jokes for their own sake, crow-barring in of arch dialogue I knew wouldn't sound natural, and, naturally, an annoyingly huge number of Star Wars references. I forgave my past self these indulgences and incompetencies and enjoyed the encounter - not out of arrogance, but an appreciation of how much fun I had back then and how far I've come.
There's a term that goes with being able to appreciate one's past and not dwell on the flaws as if they represent a judgment on one's current value as a person. I heard it may be "self-esteem."
When the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition was released in 1997, I was hardly a naysayer. I saw all three on opening night at Mann's Chinese and rationalized the enhancements as a "cost of doing business." Sure "Jedi Rocks" was lame, but worth it to have a print of The Empire Strikes Back without the see-through snow-speeders. During my year without Star Wars, however, I realized how much The Maker's constant tinkering with his own creation truly pushes my buttons. Even if the originals are freely available on demand and in real time, even if I know that they are his to do with as he pleases, one question just keeps nagging: why can't he let it be?
I have no intention to pop-psychoanalyze my idol. I don't know the man and haven't walked a mile in his moccasins. This has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with of my reception of his actions.
As someone who has painfully, over the course of many years and many failures — and much, much psychotherapy — managed to cobble together détente with the past, I have a hard time with someone so hellbent on erasing perceived mistakes. While I can't possibly understand the what drives a man who at a young age single-handedly changed the face of popular culture and was catapulted to a level of fame that would boggle the mind of a mere journeyman television writer, I suffer for having so close a relationship with the work of someone so preoccupied with an ever-so-elusive ideal of aesthetic perfection that he stamps out what made it great in the first place.
The only thing that matters in my own life is to move forward: to develop beyond what I have already done, to find new ways to express what meager gifts I have — and to show my past self a little compassion. Past Javi had problems enough as it was: living in fear of the eventual judgment of a future self is a Moebius loop of mental fuckery that could only lead to insanity.
The creative life with which I want communion as an adult is one lived by the principle described by Raul Julia's character in the obscure 1976 film The Gumball Rally. Playing a lecherous Ferrari driver, Julia takes the pilot seat, tears out the rearview mirror, and declares that "the first rule of Italian driving" is "what's behind me is not important."
So while I respect that George Lucas believes that in some bright pixellated future there exists a perfect version of Star Wars that transcends the limited capacity of 1970's analog cinema, I just don't want to walk beside him on the journey anymore. I love the past and no longer find a reason to judge it wanting — not when there's every chance that what lies ahead may actually be, you know, fun.
That it took Star Wars to teach me that is — I suppose — a further credit to the scope of Uncle George's talent and the breadth of his vision... and someday I will fish out the component cables that connect my Pioneer auto-flipping Laserdisc player to my TV, pop in my original Star Wars platter and spend a lazy afternoon becoming reacquainted with young Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia...
...and there - in a long ago, far-away galaxy of visible matte lines, continuity errors, bad latex masks, kit-bashed models, and herky-jerky flights through star fields indicated by backlit pinholes in black cloth — I also hope to meet a chubby seven year-old Puerto Rican misfit who dreams of leaving his remote island home for a bright center of the galaxy in which film makers work in concert to make dreams a reality.
I will tell him to watch these movies as many times as he wants.
Star Wars concept art by Ralph McQuarrie