Monday, November 22, 2010

What Pete Townshend Seemed to Get Wrong About Dying and Growing Old

My kids are Star Wars fans. Now, that may be a fairly innocuous and seemingly unimportant bit of trivia to most, but not to me anyway. To me, I think it's kind of cool. And I have to admit it makes me smile.

Let me back up a bit. Like...oh, I don't know...say 33 years ago, circa 1977, when Star Wars ("Episode IV: A New Hope"...whatever the fuck that meant at the time) first came out. At that time, I was a fairly run-of-the-mill 10-year-old boy. When the original Star Wars movie was released to great confusion and even greater fanfare in May, 1977, I--like most of the country, it seemed--went to see it at the local cinemaplex. And--again, like most of the country at that time, it seemed--I loved it. I had never seen anything quite like it. For its two-hour running time, I was completely immersed and lost in the world of George Lucas' imagination. I bought into the movie and its mythology completely.

In other words, I've been a Star Wars fan since way back. Since the beginning. Back when it was considered cool and hip to be a Star Wars fan.

*[Aside: Okay...okay...maybe I'm getting a little carried away with myself here. After all, I'm not entirely sure that it was ever "cool" or "hip" to declare yourself a Star Wars fan, or to wear your favorite faded T-shirt with the gold Star Wars logo stretched across your ten-year old belly, or to go around quoting such Jedi-inspired koans as "May the force be with you," or to cart your plastic Star Wars "action figures" (read that as "dolls for boys") to and from school, or to swagger with mercinarial indifference whenever you walked anywhere, as if to declare to a world which personally didn't care one way or another that, yes, in fact, you were cooler than the rest because your favorite character in the whole mess was Han Solo (since you were sure--just absolutely positive--that Solo's swagger came from his getting laid at every spaceport he stopped at, and that if you did your best monotone Harrison Ford impersonation--lip curl, blank stare, slight smartass smile turned up at the corner of your mouth--you too could enjoy the same intergalactic wonders) or to...well, get the idea.]

It's not an easy task, really, being a Star Wars afficionado. But in many ways it's probably easier than it used to be, I'm guessing. Back in the day--back when it was just simply "old school Star Wars," without all of the digital trickery of the newer trilogy, and the video games, and the books, and the animated spinoffs--you hung the focus of your adulation on a slim thread of images that were released every three years without the benefit, even, of owning it yet on video to watch (and rewatch ad infinitum) at your own leisure.

But now my daughters have taken up the mantle of watching the films--old and new--and of playing the Lego video games, and of watching the cartoon TV series, The Clone Wars, etc. And I am happy that they seem to enjoy it, and that they like watching the movies, and that they have fun talking about them, and talking to me about them, and asking me questions about the logic of the storyline ("...ummmmm, yeah well, you see..."), and eagerly awaiting my reply as if I were some seasoned sage, ready to dispense my wisdom in hard-won nuggets of convoluted Yoda-speak.

But the simple fact is, as much as I enjoy that they enjoy something like Star Wars, and as much as I enjoy enjoying it with them, it's different for me these days. The whole Star Wars phenomenon, that is. In many ways, I feel like that old saying regarding a ship that has already sailed. There are times I wonder if I've outgrown it--"it" being Star Wars, of course, but also maybe "it" as the whole media-saturated/pop-culture/blockbuster mentality that came into vogue during my youth and has decidedly stayed, evolved, morphed, and become the fulcrum by which the entertainment industry is balanced today. That's not to say that I don't still love the Star Wars films--the Star Wars story, to be more exact, I suppose--because I do still enjoy them and have a great fondness for them. But that "love" and that feeling of "fondness" has maybe shifted somewhat over time. There are times, in fact, when I wonder if I still love them the way I profess. There are times I wonder if I still can love them the same way. Is that even possible after all this time? Do we ever love anything the same way--with the same hot, blind, passionate intensity--for all time? Can we? Is that how we're wired? How do we take into account, then, the fact that change occurs naturally? Obviously there is the passing of time, of course, and the accumulation of years. But change in other ways, too. Ways that perhaps aren't quite so easy to see at first, but are still as much a part of who we are today as are the deepening lines and wrinkles around our eyes whenever we break into a smile.

When I watch the Star Wars films today with my daughters, I have a good time. But I find myself often wondering if I'm having the same kind of good time watching the films now as I used to when watching them as a young boy or even as a young man, twenty years ago. Am I enjoying the movies for the sheer entertainment that they are, or am I now possibly enjoying a "ghost version" of them, in a way? When I sit down on the couch with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn nestled between me and my girls and we turn on Star Wars: Episode IV, does my heart still race and my skin still goosebump at the crashing chords of the opening fanfare, and the iconic STAR WARS emblazoned in gold, rushing headlong away from us, pulling its now-famous "prologue" quickly along with it (just as it pulls its audience into an explosion of plot and action), to disappear forever in the timeless distance of space? Or could it be that nowadays when I watch the films I'm simply enjoying them vicariously? Is the "love" that I feel for the old movies the same kind of "love" that I used to experience back in the old days, or is it instead, now, the transferred love that I feel for my daughters, and for their shared experience of watching the movies and for enjoying them and for having them--now and forever--as a part of their own mythologized youth? When I experience something like Star Wars these days, I wonder, am I simply experiencing my memories of it, reliving--in an imperceptibly dimishing way--my initial enthusiastic love for the memory of it, and for my youth--real or imagined--as being somehow better and more golden than it actually was?

*[Aside: Let me pause for a moment here, if I may, and get a little more specific with my examples. Let's take, for instance, the six movies that make up what is known as the Star Wars Saga (told in their intended order, I guess). As pieces of pop-culture pheonomona, they are collectively and individually timeless. They will outlive us all, probably, with each new generation discovering the films and embracing the story as its own. But as works of art...well...that's another story entirely. As an adult with an adult sensibility, try watching Star Wars (that would be the original one, the circa 1977 one, the "Episode IV" one) with a straight face today and see how long that lasts. You can't do it. When viewed through eyes that have perhaps--over time--grown a bit more cynical and/or critical, the original film is a bit of a mess, to put it nicely. The acting is on-par with a mediocre high school stage production of Our Town. The dialogue is...well, it's by George Lucas. (Enough said, perhaps.) And the logical "holes" in the story's script are large enough to swallow a herd of banthas. But be that as it may, the movie still works--faults and all. (And here's the weird thing, the magical thing, the thing that Lucas seemed to understand intutitively...the original movie works--hell, the entire series of movies works--precisely because of the clunky, schticky, ridiculously amateurish faults. That's part of it. That may be the largest part of it, in fact. It's supposed to be that way, which is obviously not something a ten-year-old is going to pick up on. That comes with time, maybe, and with age, and with the magical special effect of growing older and maybe even a little bit wiser.) Still in all, I have to admit that there is a glowing exception to the whole saga, and that would be in its excellent 5th installment, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. I will always have a special place in my heart for this film and will forever use it to take exception even to my own jaded criticisims of the film series. This movie stands out, in my opinion, as being something a little bit more than its counterparts. This movie--Episode V, as it is known in the canon, or simply as the abbreviated Empire in the lingo of Lucas' faithfully devoted fanbase of nerds --"raised the bar," in many ways, and elevated the series into something more than just a schlocky B-movie enterprise. In the hands of director Irvin Kershner, The Empire Strikes Back succeeds in ways the other films could never quite match in that: 1.) it has an excellent, tightly-woven script that pushes the original story and its characters forward in new and surprising ways, 2.) it has beautiful art direction and cinematography, 3.) it has an intuitive understanding of the classical theatrical function of the Second Act in a Three-Act play--with its darker, shadowed color scheme, its more serious approach to the storyline, and its ballsy, flat-out impressive unwillingness to fade to black with a stereotypical happy Hollywood ending. Quite simply, I think it's brilliant. Even in hindsight. The other films in the series, however...well, despite their each having high moments of their own, I don't think they come off quite so well, I guess. In fact, to be quite honest, if I never see again or hear again an Ewok or Jar-Jar Binks (for the sweet love of God...), that would be fine. I could live with that.]

Of course--as I'm sure you're already aware, but I'll state the obvious anyway--for the purposes of this essay, Star Wars is just a particular example, an extended metaphor, one idea substituting for another. Because my larger question, obviously, is to wonder if we do this all the time. With everything. Do we, in fact, continue to love the things that we held on to so dearly when we were younger--thoughts of home, a favorite pet, a cherished blanket, our revered football team, our first crush, our first broken heart, our lifelong sweetheart, our bride of 60 years--or is it instead this "ghost version" of love that I mentioned earlier, a love for the memory of the love that we used to have?

I don't know the answer to any of this. But just for the sake of argument, I'm going to guess yes. And so what if that's true? What is so wrong with admitting to something like that? Does that automatically mean that our "love" is any less authentic or any less genuine? Or is "love" simply "love?" Does it matter that the destination of that love--the object or idea receiving our love--differs from what we profess or demonstrate? Or is it all, instead, in the intention, in the act of loving itself, in the will to desire and to care for someone or something else simply because we always have, and because we know we should, and because it makes us feel good, comfortable, and complete? Is that maybe--at its heart--what all love is?

Again, I don't know. But so what if it is? So what if we love the memory of love? I would argue that we do it all the time. In a favorite book or a favorite piece of music. And in a favorite old car that we used to own. And in a painting that we once saw hanging on a wall in a gallery in Chicago. And in a meal that we once ate, at a restaurant that we can't forget. And in things--non-tangible, material things, even--like snowy Christmas mornings when we were a kid, a memorable vacation we took when were in high school, a transforming conversation we once fell into at a coffeshop, a college course we took with a professor--now dead--whom we will never forget. Ever.

We do this all the time. And nowhere does it say that we can't call this "love." Even though we've moved on, and grown older, and gathered experiences, and changed, we can still love what we used to love, simply because at one time in our lives we remember having loved it beyond all measure.

I would argue that there is great value in this. I would even go so far as to argue that there is an essential quality to our being human in doing this. We love because we can, not just because we should. And the things we love or profess to love remain objects of our affection long after we feel the initial feeling of "love," primarily because our memories associated with that feeling are so strong and so defining that they pull us deeper in the direction that we were perhaps always meant to go.

Like the image that I mentioned earlier of that "ship that has already passed," it's as if we have a chartered passage on board and are sailing further away from the shore with each year. In one way of thinking--the established "round-earth theory," of course--our ship sinks below the horizon, out of sight for only a while, but never really gone, simply because of the curvature of the earth. And in time--under the obvious strictures of such a theory--our ship's masts will once again rise into view over the opposite horizon, returning from its voyage.

The familiar old adage, in other words: "What is past is prologue." Which is fine, of course. And quite obviously true.

Except what if it isn't? What if it works the other way, in fact? What if the past is simply...the past? What if--after something happens--it is gone, living only in our memory? What if--at the end of it all--our experiences add up to only the collected recollection of our experiences? Does that make our experiences--and our "love" of those experiences--any less important, any less valid, any less real? What if that proverbial ship we are sailing on does not--as is commonly accepted--simply round the earth and dip below the horizon in anticipation of its return, but is, instead, gone once beyond our field of vision, fallen off some disastrous precipice, and never seen from again? What then? Does that ship exist? Did it ever? And was it real? And does it matter?

I find, though--underneath the weight of all the questions and the uncertainties about love and its esoteric and malleable nature within the passage of time--that no matter how complex I try to make the issue, the answers are really pretty simple. All it takes, usually, is a quiet look (a glance, really) at my daughters, and I am reminded all over again that most of the time love is not that hard to figure out. It's pretty obvious, actually. What we loved yesterday we will equally love today, and tomorrow, and for all the days to come. Because that's the way it should be. And because that's the way it is.

"Dad," my daughters asked me again the latest time Star Wars came on, with its familiar opening crash of chords, its glittering starfield, its introductory crawl of confusing backstory. "Why did they start in the middle with all the movies? Why not start at the beginning? Why begin with 'Episode IV?'"

"Sshh..." I said again, sitting down next to them, watching as their smiles grew bigger and their eyes glazed over and they fell under the trance that I remember so well. I pushed the VOL button on the remote control and let the classic opening scenes wash over me. Over all of us. Again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. "The movie..." I motioned to the beloved images of Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio shambling (again) along a glittering, sterile, white corridor, sprawled across my widescreen TV. "...Starting it is."

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