Was honored and secretly terrified to appear on the season-finale episode of "Live Wire! Radio" on June 1, backing up headliner guests Lizz Winstead and Kasey Anderson and The Honkies.
I read an essay on my complicated relationship with "Star Wars" -- checking in on my fandom in seven-year-increments, noting the changes.
Star Wars 7up
Read on Live Wire! Radio, recorded June 1, 2012
Hi. My name is Mike Russell. And I was a "Star Wars" addict.
(These days I'm semi-addicted. You never fully recover.)
Fun fact: "Star Wars" turned 35 years old this month. I'm 42. I first caught my addiction on the big screen when I was 7.
As with many movie-lovers my age, George Lucas' space opera took up way too much of my brain's pop-culture lobe, for a very long time. Later, this made me kind of angry.
This year, on its 35th anniversary, my relationship with "Star Wars" is weirdly divisible into 7-year increments. I can drop in on myself at ages 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42. This number, 7, feels significant. It's like Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" -- only with dialogue so clunky it accidentally sounds like iambic pentameter.
Or maybe it's Michael Apted's "Seven Up" documentary series, but with Ewoks.
Before we continue: Has anyone here not seen "Star Wars"? Okay. Here's what it's about:
The characters are: A whiny hick in a poncho. A wizard who dresses like a homeless person. A pirate who dresses like an early-'60s Beatle. A Sasquatch. A beeping trash can. And the beeping trash can's gold-plated metrosexual frenemy.
In a single day, they go from hanging out in the desert to rescuing a princess with Cinnabons on her head to blowing up a giant metal moon that destroys planets. The metal moon is run by Van Helsing from the Hammer horror films and a tall guy with asthma who wears a Batman costume and a samurai helmet and a '70s tape deck strapped to his chest.
Somehow, this story became an all-ages pop-culture phenomenon.
In the Internet age -- where all media exists simultaneously -- it's easy to forget how a single movie could dominate the cultural conversation. But "Star Wars" ran in first-run theaters for a freaking year. You couldn't get away from it.
Its triumph was its execution. George Lucas distilled hero's-quest mythology, Westerns, and "Flash Gordon" serials into one seamless story. It was funny. The music was a cool riff on Wagnerian leitmotif. The editing was insanely tight.
But most important to a 7-year-old, "Star Wars" built a weird, messy, lived-in world that seemed to continue outside the film frame. You could fill in the edges with your imagination.
I saw it three times. Movie-concession Red Vines are my madeleine.
At age 7, you're a sponge. I didn't just watch "Star Wars." It went straight through my retinas. It carved itself onto my brain like a Van Halen logo on a high-school desk. Its universe became my sandbox. This was cultishly reinforced by the fact that you could buy toys of the characters and make up your own stories for them in your living room while listening to the soundtrack double LP. The Rajneeshees couldn't have done a better job imprinting.
A friend of mine -- the cartoonist and classical-mythology nerd Dylan Meconis, who's actually here tonight -- accuses "Star Wars" of "wrecking the minds" of an entire generation of young men. I don't entirely agree -- that seems like a lot to pin on a nerd filmmaker from Modesto. (And let's be honest: Are the Ewoks any stupider than Athena springing from Zeus' forehead?)
But I can sort of see Dylan's point. If creativity involves free-associating all the random data you collect over the years, and you decide as a kid to collect most of that data from a single story -- well, that and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- then yeah. You might have a problem.
By the time I was 14, though, the third (and then-final) "Star Wars" film, "Return of the Jedi," had been out for a year. I was hitting adolescence and getting into sports and theater and writing and girls -- and even then I knew the series had peaked with "Empire Strikes Back."
Lucas took an admirable risk on "Empire." He made a sequel with a cliffhanger ending about failure and bad parenting, with a Muppet, using his own money. Han Solo macked on Princess Leia. The Millennium Falcon was a busted hot rod. It ruled.
On the other hand, "Return of the Jedi" ended the series with teddy bears overthrowing trained commando units. So I was poised to put that series behind me.
And then I turned 21.
This was 1991. George Lucas finally realized that "Willow" and "Howard the Duck" weren't going to help him pay his employees. So he authorized the publication of new novels that officially continued the story of "Star Wars." This launched an official "Expanded Universe" of books and games and twirling lollipop holders.
And thus began Lucasfilm's long, profitable process of caulking in all the story gaps my imagination used to fill.
It was a genius marketing move. Lucas chose to fill in the "Star Wars" blanks at a time when the target audience's lives were starting to fill up with real-world blanks.
Me? I was about to graduate from college. I was losing my faith, my belief system, my structured schedule and my college girlfriend. But now I could clutch all-new "Star Wars" fetish objects like a security blanket while I tried to sort out my life.
It was a balm. And a crutch. And a silly, expensive habit.
By age 28, in 1998, this re-igniting of geek interest was double-reinforced by the explosion of the World Wide Web. I'd built a career in the newspaper business -- which at the time was trying to brush off the World Wide Web like a pesky gnat. Hindsight!
Meanwhile, I devoted embarrassing amounts of time to reading online discussions about a little film called "The Phantom Menace," which was coming out in a year. It was an exciting, hopeful time.
Then I saw "The Phantom Menace."
And on that evening, I became a man.
The movie to which I'd devoted years -- years! -- of anticipation turned out to be sort of ... shockingly dull. It over-explained. It turned my childhood mythology into C-SPAN. And it made me angry. Head-clutchingly angry. Angry like a NASA engineer watching his space probe crash into Mars because someone forgot to carry the four.
These days, of course, I realize my entertainment is not a pioneering interplanetary science mission, and that a movie is a damn silly place to direct your rage.
And let's be honest. I was angry at myself.
"Phantom Menace" had the exact opposite effect on me as the original films. It taught me not to place my faith in a single storyteller -- much as you shouldn't place your faith in a single dogma. And it left me wondering about how much time and creativity I'd wasted.
Was my pal Dylan right? Was I wrecked?
Well, not exactly. A spell had been broken. And it kind of freed me creatively.
In fact, if "The Phantom Menace" hadn't pissed me off, I probably wouldn't be standing here now.
That movie inspired me to post an online review that was written like I'd fled a cult. Over a period of years, that one angry review led to a new paid career in film writing. Within five years, I was writing about movies and moviemakers professionally. More important, I leveraged my freelance position at The Oregonian into a side career drawing comic strips -- telling my own stories.
So in a weird way, my anger at "The Phantom Menace" forced me to expand my field of cultural interest.
(You know, to "Lord of the Rings." And Joss Whedon's "Firefly.")
George Lucas did not "ruin my childhood," as the Internet is fond of shrieking. What George Lucas did was cater to a market as his core audience gained discretionary income. I bought in until he made so many creative choices I totally disagreed with that I finally became my own man, in a cultural-consumer sense.
I was 35 in 2005, when the final "Star Wars" prequel, "Revenge of the Sith," came out. I like "Sith" alone among the prequels, because it's clearly the only one George Lucas actually wanted to make, and because it's actually about something -- useless wars, the death of democracy, and the crumbling of the body. All things that were frankly starting to worry me at 35.
Now I'm 42, and my worries are realities. George Lucas produces a "Clone Wars" cartoon aimed at kids. I don't watch it. It's not made for me. Mostly I enjoy watching the original "Star Wars" icons get folded into kitschy new shapes by our Web-fueled remix culture.
That is, of course, the beginning of middle-aged nostalgia.
So where does it go from here? Let's suppose my life is the geek equivalent of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man. If so: What are my "lean and slipper'd pantaloon" and "second childishness" phases? Am I sitting in an old folks' home at 70, ranting about midichlorians?
Oh, hell, who am I kidding. After spending this much time sitting on my ass consuming "Star Wars," there's no way I make it to 70.