You Can't Be Nine Again

TELEVISION: Star Wars Holiday Special
Directed by Steve Binder (1978)

When I was nine years old, I cared about one thing, only one thing, and (as far as I knew) I cared about it more than any other nine year old in the world did. To save you the math, I'll just tell you... that thing was Star Wars.

Unless you were there, and the right age, you really can't appreciate what it was like. Star Wars was an effing epidemic for us. We walked around thinking Star Wars for years, talking about it, fantasizing about being anything from Luke Skywalker to John Dykstra (special effects wizard on the film), collecting the cards, coveting the toys, resenting the kids we'd heard about who'd seen the movie 96 times. In ways that I'm not going to bother explaining right now, it very probably changed the course of my life -- no exaggeration.

So I was eight when the movie came out, but on November 17, 1978, I was nine years old. That was when CBS aired the Star Wars Holiday Special on TV. This was like a container car full of cocaine derailing in Robert Downey Jr.'s back yard, for us. I couldn't wait. Yet somehow, when the evening came, my parents wouldn't let me watch it. I don't remember the exact reason. It was something like I had to finish my homework first, or I was being punished. No amount of begging, pleading, bargaining or cajoling would get them to back down. I specifically remember my mom telling me "It will be on again."

Of course, if you're a geek, you know that, notoriously, the Star Wars Holiday Special was never aired again, which is why, if you're NOT a geek, you're saying "Star Wars Holiday Special???" Whatever it was I was doing in the dining room (I do think it was homework), I couldn't sit still, I HAD to see the show, I could hear some of it in the other room, and managed to see little bits of it (like the first appearance of Boba Fett) on my trips back to the living room to beg for mercy, but in the end, I pretty much missed it.

Over the years following, I kind of forgot about it. I knew there had been an early appearance of Boba Fett, but the memory was woven of loose threads, like a long-ago dream that gets stitched into real memories, except in reverse. Then one day, thinking about the Boba Fett action figure that you could only get from a mail-in offer (which I could have got, but didn't -- something I'll eventually quit kicking myself for), it triggered the memory, and I asked whoever it was I was with -- John, I think -- "Was there a Star Wars Holiday Special?" Yes, there was, and it was horrible, he told me. He was older than me, though, and he couldn't know the unresolved nine year old within me.

So, more years pass, and then there's the internet. I managed to get a hold of a truly terrible copy of the video, but I had it, and I could finally watch it, even if it was 28 years later.

From this date forth, the yardstick by which I measure terribleness has been changed forever.

How terrible? The central story is built around Chewbacca's family -- that's right, Wookies, who don't speak English -- and their preparations for "Life Day" while they wait and worry about Chewbacca and Han Solo, who have run afoul of some local Imperials on their way home. This central narrative with Chewie's hapless wife Malla, scampish son Lumpy, and face-gumming old father (all of which is just wrong, wrong, WRONG), serves as the framing device for:

* Token cameos from Mark Hammill, Carrie Fisher (who sings the Life Day song in the end), Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and R2D2. There's also a brief bit of James Earl Jones' voice over some stock footage from the film.

* Some extremely nelly acrobats in a proto-Cirque de Soliel holographic performance.

* Art Carney as a daffy trader, who evidently got an incredible offer on his comedic timing, because he's entirely out-of-stock of that particular commodity.

* Harvey Korman in THREE agonizing character sketches -- as a four-armed TV chef (female), a malfunctioning android in an instructional video, and as a lovestruck chump who drinks through a hole in the top of his head, pining for Bea Arthur (more on this later).

* Diahann Caroll as the featured act in some kind of psychedelic soft-core erotic music video, drooled over by Chewbacca's father (or is it stepfather?), Itchy. Very creepy.

* Jefferson Starship as a holographic rock band. Very creepy.

* A kind-of-cool cartoon about Han, Luke and Chewie, which is where Boba Fett appears.

* A "Life on Tatooine" documentary that starts with cantina footage from the film, evidently via the cutting room floor, and culminates in a performance by Bea Arthur as the cantina owner, singing a kind of Brechtian dirge called "Goodnight But Not Goodbye" as she kicks all her patrons out, under Imperial curfew.

At times the special is sugar-coated kiddy (or "family") fare, such as you would expect from a holiday special stacked with second tier "stars" of the '70s. At other times, it's like a school play about fascism performed by students who were forced to perform but haven't rehearsed. And there are still other times when I don't know WHAT the hell that was. There's only so much shrugging and going "Eh, it was the '70's..." you can do.

Looking back, I think the nine year old me would have been too jacked up to sleep after watching that. It was MORE Star Wars, which was all I cared about -- nevermind GOOD Star Wars. But watching it now, it was mostly painful, and then funny, and then back to painful. I want to forgive it, but other than the cartoon, there's so little to redeem it.

I no longer have any questions about why George Lucas did his best to keep it from ever seeing the light of day again.

Crosspost Classic!  5.25.2006

Purity Is An Agenda

I was a number of years back that my friend Mike was talking about some narrow-minded twit from the anime message boards he frequented who complained that manga & anime (show-off words for comics and animation produced in Japan) should not intermix with comics & animation styles from the West. Now, of course, this is pure foolishness. The origins of Japanese comics and animation are tied very closely to direct American influences. Comics took off in Japan after World War II as a result of Japanese children being exposed to American comics by servicemen stationed there. The so-called "God of Comics" in Japan, Osamu Tezuka, was primarily influenced by Disney and Fleisher studio cartoons, and one would be hard pressed to find an artist in Japan who wasn't influenced by Tezuka, or at least someone who was. Anyway, long rant made short, the idea that American and Japanese comics and animation should not influence each other is so asinine that I'm kind of embarrassed to have validated it this much by even addressing it seriously.

What I'm actually writing about is the kind of though behind such wrong-minded assertions. Like I said, this originally came up a couple years ago, and it's been on my mind intermittently ever since then, and the conclusion I've come to is...

Purity is an agenda.

More specifically, attempts -- almost ANY attempt -- to keep something "pure" denotes the presence of an agenda -- almost always -- to impose control. It is my further contention that reference to purity should be met with caution and/or mistrust, and that purity itself is, in fact, a wrong thing.

Let us take the anime example. Now there are few people on planet Earth more xenophobic than the Japanese (but hang on, because I'll get around to the ones who are), but without the external cultural influence of American comics and cartoons, there very well might not even BE such a thriving and ubiquitous manga and anime industry in Japan, or, at the very least, not one we would recognize.

The flipside of that coin is that, after the comics crash of the mid-90s (following the glut of trash in the early-90s) both Japanese-influenced American artists, and Japanese comics translated into English, were a large part of keeping the floundering industry afloat. In the case of manga, comics gained a strong female following, which had long eluded "pure" (i.e. superhero) American approaches to comics.

So what does it profit the aficionado to rail against the inevitable winds of change, hoping to keep his beloved artform "pure" and self-replicating? Well, for one, it allows the most fannish of fans to keep the bounds of their chosen medium finite. If new works can only be created following strict limitations, then the fan can enjoy the certainty that he knows the precise limits and definition of the medium. He knows exactly where it begins and ends, and in so doing, can feel empowered by the knowledge, in control of it, utterly possessing the object of his affection. Furthermore, he wants this art to remain exactly as he has known it to be when he first encountered it. By attempting to hold this item in the past, in the place he once loved it, he is trying to hold himself in the past, denying himself the opportunity to grow and evolve alongside the particular medium in question. If he allows himself to grow as the medium grows and takes on new influences and discovers new things to say, his own view might be opened up, and he might grow away from this comforting relationship, in time. This is Life, and the purist fears its uncertainty.

The loss of purity spawns the seeds of Progress.

If that sounds vaguely sexual, then perhaps I'm being too vague. The intermingling of energies is the stuff of Life. Much as we humans wouldn't exist if our biological parents hadn't lost their "purity," cultures wouldn't grow and thrive without soiling the sheets of the creative norms.

We wouldn't have rock and roll if someone hadn't muddied the purity of blues and country music. We wouldn't have had country music in the first place, if someone hadn't violated the virtue of pure Irish fiddle music at some point. I'm no musical historian, but I know that we wouldn't have most (if not all) of what we have today, and what we'll have tomorrow, if someone hadn't mucked up the moons-old tradition of banging two rocks together by introducing the hollow log to the mix. Take your favorite medium and apply this principle as appropriate.

So far, I've mostly talked about art, but I believe that it applies to purity in virtually all areas of life. Purity sounds like a good and respectable thing, but it still means somebody is trying to maintain control. Of course, one of the most obvious and notorious "purity" agendas is racial/cultural/religious. Many of the same control motives apply here. By keeping races/cultures/religions anchored in the simple form that the individual first digested it as a child, the individual doesn't have to grow or confront challenging and uncomfortable questions. Further, it allows those who hold the reigns of that institution to continue to exert their primacy over those who would allow themselves to consider questions of the finer points. This would be the George W. Bush approach; the facts don't matter, as long as you commit to an unwavering decision. Ironically, we know scientifically that the merging of genetic strains provides an opportunity to make the species stronger.

And finally, of course, there's the sexual purity agenda, which is enforced by the religious agenda, although it actually cuts across cultural lines. The heightened value placed on virginity -- and of course this means female virginity in particular -- is part and parcel of male domination of women. Whether it's maintaining the "precious maidenhead" until marriage, to know that no one else has been breeding your prize heifer, or the premium paid for virgins in brothels, demonstrated in its most ritualized form in the mizuage ceremony for the auctioning off of an oiran's (the courtesan precursors to the geisha) virginity to the highest (and hopefully most socially advantageous) bidder. Transculturally, there is no premium placed on male virginity (BELIEVE ME -- am I RIGHT, fellas?), and male status is improved by planting his seed in any field that hasn't been guarded against him. Women, however, aren't expected to enjoy sex or have any basis for comparison beyond the man she "loves, honors and obeys." This topic has been considered more thoroughly by finer minds than mine, so I'm just going to leave it at that.

Life is impure. I know we'd all like it to be a little more simple, but that doesn't mean we should be simple-minded and unwilling to grow in ourselves and our appreciation for the wondrous variety in the universe.

Crosspost Classic! 8.22.2007