(Insert Dashing Han Solo Quote Here)

written July 24-27, 2011


I assure you I do not have a DeLorean stashed away (although I actually see one around town on occasion, but traveling at an acceptable speed).  If I did possess such stainless-steel wheels I would have a short list of who in history I would want to meet first.  Perhaps at the very top is Frederick Douglass (you begin to think of such things, falling asleep at night, as a history major), wearer of the aforementioned coat (from “A Day Out”). Douglass’ actual birthday was a mystery, as you correctly stated.  The other part of the story is that. even though as a slave he had been robbed of a birth date, as a man he decided to create one.  And because his mother called him her “little valentine” he chose February 14th. Last year I when discovered that Douglass described visiting Elmwood for a lyceum speech in in the early 1870s that was mentioned in his autobiography I’ve been fascinated with researching about the moment ever since.   To depart from Serious History for a moment and sidetrack, sometimes I’ve wondered what a summer birthday might be like: the swimming parties, and strawberries, not having to work around school.  Ice skating was my option, and perhaps only two celebrations were shut down due to snow.  On the plus side the school Valentine’s Day parties often doubled as a birthday party.  That was always nice.

As a retired butcher my dad must live in perpetual shame that I’ve moved more away from beef, and have declined brats so many times when he’s grilled, clearly trying to show off the old skills.  Even the last hot dogs I had for the Fourth were made of turkey. What appealed to my mental picture you wove was the ‘wursts as part of the greater polka-beer-funny hats cultural tapestry, or um, lederhosen.  In contrast, Elmwood’s strawberry-as-symbol was selected because there’s a patch a few miles to the east–or at least there was.  Picking strawberries in that local field was actually my very first job, when I was about nine.  I can still vividly recall being driven there before dark, and going up and down the rows.  I think the deal was one dollar to save, one for fun.

Confusion reigns as well when I describe to my mom and dad my views on history.  The occasional blank stares I take with empathy yet bemusement, especially since my mom is a 5th grade English teacher.  But it’s okay because they’ve both always just wanted me to be happy and do something I feel is fulfilling.  I owe them a cruise or something for all the support they have given me, I know.  Yet it’s funny because they seem to think I’ll be some kind of fact dispenser, leaping from great man to war to next great man.  When someone is viewing a piece from antiquity, apart from being back in Toga Time, what would you wish they knew/appreciated about them?  Good luck again on your thesis/report; are you planning at looking more at records and narratives to uncover female patronage, or try to look at pieces themselves to discern qualities that women might have wished to commission?  Maybe I’m nowhere close, but I think it’s very interesting and more should be generally known about it.

    *     *     *     *     *

Before the following discussion of a film, namely Star Wars, I will include first what was first sent to me, before my response, for the full conversation of cinema:

To start with the most obvious, their sheer effect on popular culture is enormous and few (if any) movies can compete. Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with George Lucas’ intense focus on merchandising (as parodied quite aptly by Mel Brooks aka Yogurt in Spaceballs). This is also a testament (to a degree) to the ways in which George Lucas changed the film industry with the Star Wars trilogy (I’m ignoring the prequels because they would only hurt my case). We are now bombarded with products every time a major movie comes out and it’s all thanks to Mr. Lucas (I didn’t say he necessarily changed the film industry in a good way…). In addition, ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) did a phenomenal job with special effects in the original movies and personally (perhaps a testament to my old school values) I prefer them to CGI. The ILM team developed groundbreaking techniques in making epic space battles filmed in a parking lot awe and amaze audiences throughout the world, pushing the boundaries of 1970s technology – take that CGI! Now, to move on to the best part of all: the story. Lucas intended Star Wars to be a Western in space and looked to the old space classics of the 1930s (like Flash Gordon) when conceptualizing Star Wars. It seamlessly blends multiple genres to appeal to a wide range of audiences (except my mother…), although sci-fi fans tend to nerd out the most over it. To turn to a subject close my heart, any ancient historian has to realize how much of ancient Rome is found in the Star Wars movies. Republic vs. Empire, Emperor vs. Senate. Roman history anyone? Which just begs the question, why would anyone not love Star Wars when clearly the ancient Romans were awesome too! Furthermore, you have the Dark Side vs. Light Side dichotomy. Very Manichean (and hence ancient Mediterranean). This dichotomy can easily be used as comparisons for numerous aspects of schoolwork. For example, in college I compared Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Star Wars. As noted earlier, all of Roman history can be compared to Star Wars. (My professor for both classes was also a huge Star Wars fan, so that helped. He even showed up to class one day dressed like a Sith! Sadly, it wasn’t my class, but I saw pictures.) For more contemporary history buffs, Star Wars utilizes elements from World War II, most obviously the Stormtroopers. Considering his later movies, especially the prequels, Star Wars is surprising and refreshing in having a very strong major female character, especially in Episode IV. Moving in a different direction, what other movie can take your breath away just with an opening crawl? Much of this credit goes to John Williams and his stunning compositions. Star Wars has one of the most memorable and amazing themes of any movie out there and how many movies can boast a score performed by a professional full orchestra? Just fabulous. Now, for a quick list of reasons why these movies are spectacular:

Muppets. Yep. Muppets.
Inverted subject and verb. Who knew using poor grammar could make you sound so intelligent?!
Alec Guinness
They don’t suffer from the sequel curse (until the prequels). All three original movies are great.
Best character ever created: Han Solo. He’s dashing, witty, charming, sarcastic, brash but courageous, a total bad-ass who deep down is a softie. He’s flawed, but not fatally. Find me another character who brings as much to the table as Han Solo. Good luck.

Hmm, I think my defense got increasingly stream of consciousness toward the end. Probably not my best attempt, but hopefully it was at least entertaining, if not coherent.

*    *    *    *    *

The other films of the 1970s as compared to Star Wars were worlds apart.  These movie galaxies were so far far away, in part, because the contemporary culture seems to no longer trust itself. In this vacuum new realizing were embraced, whereby even the heroes broke the rules.  Movie goers were also treated to waved of destruction, whether it was by earthquake, collapsed buildings, capsizing, or global virus. Watergate and Vietnam had left their gray marks uncertainty weariness. En vogue was the raw and uncompromising.  Out was John Wayne; in was Popeye Doyle.  Yet like any mood–especially a pprolonged, dour note–audiences began to want a new (or refreshingly vintage, as with Flash Gordon) tone.  That the new Star Wars hero wore all white while the villain was clothed in black wasn’t revolutionary, being common visual symbolism of early television and film westerns, but it was a signal this world was going to be futuristically retro.  Manichean indeed. (When I read this term I thought, ‘Drat, I’m going to have to look it up and also probably say I did..’)

The swashbuckling romanticism that burst across the screen with the accompaniment of unabashed, unafraid french horn blasts was both innately known yet intriguingly alien.  These were not characters weighted down by a hardscrabble life, taunting civilians of feeling lucky, or going insane while driving a cab.  The supposedly stale trope of a princess fought the “foul stench” of evil, while a youth gazed wistfully–wistfully!–forward for his future.  These characters, in so many words, instead had their whole lives ahead of them.  And it would be in a vibrant world that, however narrowly revealed in a single film,  felt real and livable, much more so than later green-screen travesties.  What is cutting edge in 1977 was a female breaking the swooning-damsel mold by skillfully blasting storm troopers, shots fired that perhaps  advanced women as much as any March or bra-burning of its day. For me, as another blonde farm(ish) boy, Star Wars was and remains a call to adventure and discovery as bright as two suns.  I’m not sure how philosophically in tuned most Americans are, but it offered a simple spiritual message of caution, patience, and connectivity.  The films were not beholden to special effects; they served the story instead of the plot left for the cracks in between each visual amazement.  Its effects were marveled upon release, yet it was an echo of countless ancient epics well-worn in human storytelling.  That it can be appreciated on numerous levels inspires its repeat screenings: for its imagination, its sense of ethos, its band of archetypes, and its Shakespearean tale of cyclical morality pondering the nature of choice and fate.  Best of all, the movies were fun once again.

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