Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Greatest Speech Ever....

Courtesy of Chaplin, now courtesy of Darth Vader and the Clone Wars. Sheer artistry, friends. Watch and listen and be inspired.




And Happy Holidays to everyone from the SW Heresies.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

HOW A JEDI MASTER MAKES WAR


- A Study of Ambush


"Begun, the Clone War has."
- Yoda

     The conclusion of the Star Wars prequels found a powerful schism running not only through the center of that long ago, far away galaxy, but also through the very heart of the Grand Master of the Jedi Order himself.
     Yoda began the saga at the top of the Jedi Temple in the bright center of the galaxy, only to have fallen into the swampy lowlands on a hopelessly backwater planet by the time his help was needed again. Bound to the holistic Force, he likewise served a corrupt, divided Republic on the verge of tearing itself apart. Eventually arguing that wars do not make one great, he also led one of the largest armies ever created in one of the biggest galactic conflicts of all time.
     It is only fitting that the first episode of The Clone Wars television series prominently features Master Yoda. He very famously foresaw that, "In this war, danger there is, of losing who we are." As the series has progressed, audiences have watched the Jedi, the perennial "peace-keepers who failed to keep the peace,"[1] struggle to maintain their pacifistic philosophy, even within combat situations that constantly undermine it.
     Yet even during a rigged war fought largely by programmed masses of clones or battle droids, the Jedi stand out, their ancient wisdom often filtering through and teasing inspiration out of sources very few others would even notice. This fascinating paradox is on full display in Yoda's character in Ambush.


     On the remote, neutral moon of Rugosa, the Republic and the Separatists are once again vying for allies to join their respective causes. In full ceremonial garb, King Katuunko of the Toydarians has invited Yoda to negotiate on the Republic's behalf for a supply base in that sector.[2] However, Asajj Ventress, the deadly, pale-skinned apprentice of the Sith Lord Count Dooku, arrives first, bringing with her a Separatist trap.
     In space, several frigates pop out of lightspeed, promptly launching an attack on the Republic shuttle approaching Rugosa. Adamant that they must reach the surface of the moon, Yoda calmly advises they launch all the escape pods in order to confuse their enemy. From the beginning, the little master uses cunning to outwit the enemy, rather than simply retaliating with aggression.
     Shooting toward Rugosa, the pod Yoda shares with three other clones nonetheless takes its share of pummeling. For his part, Yoda tellingly assumes something akin to a meditative pose in one of the seats, coolly assessing the situation even as it rattles the clones. For anyone familiar with the inscrutable stories surrounding Zen masters, the scene is somewhat evocative of D.T. Suzuki, one of the first purveyors of Eastern wisdom in the West. As Monica Furlong points out in Zen Effects, "Suzuki was good at dropping off during turbulent airplane flights, a child at home in the universe, unworried and serene."
     At his best, this passage describes Yoda as well. "After all," Irvin Kershner noted at his creation in The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, "he is a Zen master." [3] Beyond words and theory, Zen Buddhism as it came to flourish in China and then Japan is first and foremost not spirituality or a philosophy, but an experience. Contrary to an egocentricity which constantly separates and divides, Zen is a direct experience of the universe as a whole. One has set aside their limited idea of "self" only to discover that their real center of being is the center of all life. This breeds a rather spontaneous, enlightened personality that acts as naturally and deliberately as stars and planets, rocks and trees, streams and rainfall.


     Yoda demonstrates this kind of understanding throughout the episode. After landing in the escape pod, he speaks to King Katuunko via hologram, coyly mentioning he was unaware that Count Dooku had been invited to the meeting. Even though the snouted king establishes that the Separatists invited themselves, Yoda unflinchingly accepts the challenge dropped by Ventress. If her battalion of battle droids can capture him, Rugosa will go to the Separatists; if he eludes them, the moon will be open to the Republic.
     Yet even as a droid carrier thunders overhead, Yoda still takes the time to pause and reflect. "Beautiful, this moon is, hmm? Amazing, the universe is." For the first time since the original trilogy, audiences begin to see Yoda away from the decadence and intrigue of Coruscant, free from his executive burdens within the Jedi Order. He is once again on a vibrant world imbued with the Living Force, "a child at home in the universe," drinking in the wondrous beauty of existence, and is all the better for it.
     His three clone companions, however, find themselves unable to comprehend their eccentric little master. Born for battle, they nonetheless are overwhelmed by the odds; initially their thinking seems as linear and mechanical as their droid foes. "At ease, be," Yoda advises, as their trek to Katuunko begins. "To reach our goal, a straight path we will not follow."
     The poet William Blake once wrote that, "Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement, are Roads of Genius." As Yoda draws out the battle droids intent on capturing them, he aptly demonstrates this. His enemy proves cumbersome and inadaptable as their heavy tanks roll into the dense coral foliage, their Euclidean minds unable to think in any way but the straight lines in which they also march. "Size is not everything, huh?" Yoda asks his clone troopers, as he smoothly breezes across the landscape. "Smaller in number are we, but larger in mind." 


     Taking the fight to them, Yoda himself ambushes two patrols of battle droids. Giggling impishly, he deftly bounces about, over, and in between wildly blasting droids to a clueless chorus of "roger, roger." [4] As an impatient Ventress gets reports from afar, her mechanical minions fall victim to a form of Jedi Judo. Another principle from the Far East, in judo (and aikido) all the aggressive energy of an opponent is deflected back at them, their own force leading them to their doom. Feinting and dodging, Yoda takes down an entire patrol of battle droids without firing a shot, their blaster bolts constantly missing the mark and hitting each other.
     Minutes later, Yoda's small squad is pinned down by super battle droids. Again, the master responds by crossing his legs and sitting down, easily capturing one of the supers in the Force. The super keeps firing even when redirected at his own patrol, the droids once again destroying each other in a hail of blaster fire. The group doesn't retreat until the heavily-armored droidekas roll onto the scene, Yoda still deflecting fire while hitching a ride on the back of a clone.[5]
     Meanwhile, King Katuunko anxiously hovers about, asking his Republic contact if he is having trouble with the droid battalion. "Trouble? I know nothing of this trouble," Yoda answers, as calmly as ever. "Look forward to our meeting soon, I do." He's practically winking at Asajj Ventress, who crushes the hologram device in frustration.
     Even against the relentless march of the droids, Yoda advises rest for himself and his battle-weary men. Fittingly, he guides the clones into the dark recesses of a cave, a form of shelter ripe for mythic initiations. According to Signs and Symbols, a symbolism dictionary by Mark O'Connell and Raje Airey, the cave represents rebirth, creativity, and even the hidden potentials of the womb. It is about a return to insight or, as in this case, inner sight. 
     Beside a humming glow-lamp, the clones lament their lack of firepower, but their wise sage shrugs off their anxiety. "All around us is that which we need to prevail," Yoda advises, igniting his shining green blade. Literally and metaphorically, he is bringing illumination to them, opening up a new way of seeing. Tellingly, he uses his saber to turn a blaster rifle into a crutch for a wounded clone, fashioning an instrument of war into an aid for healing.


     Asked to take off their helmets, the clones argue there's nothing much to see since they're genetically identical. Yoda is unconvinced, posing as much of a riddle for them as any Zen master to his pupils. In The Method of Zen, Eugen Herrigel, a German professor who studied the Zen arts for six years in Japan, noted this attitude. It perfectly conveys what the clones are probably feeling:

He becomes aware, almost with dismay, that he is consorting
with a people of quite a different mold from the ordinary. They
seem to be ruled by a special star, not only in what they do, in
their talk, in their silences, but more particularly in their casual
behavior: in the way they stand or walk, or drink tea, or drive away
a mosquito. It is as if the world they live in had sets its own
incomparable stamp on their whole being.

Surely, this description matches what it would be like to trek across a remote moon with a nine-hundred year old Jedi Master.
     For his part, Yoda is likewise one who can no doubt sink into himself, changing his state of consciousness as easily as someone flicking on and off a light switch. "Deceive you, eyes can," he reassures the clones. "In the Force, very different each one of you are." [6] The mystical energy field created by all living things is not only tangibly felt, but is almost a new way of seeing altogether. As Herrigel says in Method, the master sees things illuminated by their true source, and "lets each thing be itself."
     Becoming that teacher once more, Yoda interacts with the clones as individuals. The first he tells to look to his comrades for inspiration; the second to use his mind instead of his weapons to out-think the enemy; and the third that the war is long, and one must survive it to prevail. "Clones you may be," he simply yet sagely states, "But the Force resides in all life forms." It surrounds and binds the galaxy, but also imbues every life with its idiomatic stamp. As Herrigel remarks of the Zen master:

It then seems to him that things do not come to him in his vision,
but that they come to "themselves," and that only then do they
 attain full reality, as if Being were beholding itself in everything
that is, as if it embraced and sustained the process of seeing.

Simply change the word "Being" to "the Force" and the sentiment works perfectly.
     His clones open to this new reality, Yoda leads them back out of the cave at the sound of passing assault tanks. Confident in his troops, he dives down the ravine to meet the Separatist column head-on. Soon utterly surrounded by blaster rifles and tank cannons, Yoda doesn't attack, but rather eases down to
meditate.[7] When a battle droid informs Ventress he's "just sitting here in front of our tanks," this panics her and she orders him to shoot Yoda that instant. [8] 
     With an awesome bit of sound design, Yoda suddenly streaks up into the air and dives like a falling missile. Eventually hitting the ground, he doesn't stay there for long. Spinning and wheeling, leaping and diving, the little Jedi Master decimates his opponents. Stabbing a droid here and cutting open a vehicle there, he even takes out a tank with another one, flipping onto the cannon and out of the way again before it fires. A whirling dervish of paradoxes, he is simultaneously young and old, gentle and deadly, coaxing a still, steady aura even in the blinding soul of action.


     Watching the battle from afar, the wry King Katuunko observes that there is a lot of smoke for an alleged surrender. Ventress tries to communicate with her droids, a hologram of one falling as Yoda races by and decapitates him. Incidentally, this is one of the more sublime bits with the battle droids, not to mention the one wailing, "I-just-got-promoted" as he's Force-pulled back to his doom.
     The tide of the battle turns for a moment when more destroyer droids roll up, only the three newly inspired clones step in with a well-aimed shot. The droidekas are soon taken care of in an avalanche, and the fight ends with Yoda sitting easily on a rock. Centering himself in meditation, he allows a butterfly-like nebray to light on his arm. This scene is reminiscent of the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, who was sometimes depicted in Chinese art as being so in tune with nature that colorful birds and butterflies would light on him.
     "Learn something, today?" Yoda asks his clone friends, and then reminds them of their manners. "Not polite to be late." Another great juxtaposition, coming from someone who just tore apart half a battalion.
     With King Katuunko convinced one Jedi is now worth a thousand battle droids, Count Dooku grows tired of negotiation. Thinking his successor might be easier to cut a deal with, he orders his eager apprentice to kill Katuunko. Striking out with twin red sabers, Ventress finds her blow caught in mid-air. Yoda steps onto the scene, effortlessly disarming her with the Force. Taking a moment to examine the hilt design, he carelessly tosses the lightsabers back, rendering her so inconsequential next to his skills it doesn't matter if she's armed or not.[9]
     Taking a page from her master Dooku, Ventress fires an explosion, creating a distraction so she can get away. Saved from the Sith, King Katuunko tells Yoda negotiations are not necessary, and presents him with a ceremonial sword. As gunships arrive, the Toydarians agree to house a Republic base in their system.
     This establishes a fine tone not only for the series, but also for the Jedi themselves. Yoda is wise but whimsical; cool but firm; gentle but dangerous. He may be a whirlwind of opposites, but he usually juggles them with the finesse of an expert entertainer. Perhaps losing the war but not himself, there are few scenes more satisfying than the master poised on a rock communing with his fellow creatures after unleashing havoc on a droid army.
     These lines are from a translation and commentary by Stephen Mitchell in The Second Book of the Tao, and while they refer to the Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu, they strongly describe this scene with Yoda:

We love to see the sage get the best of it, coming to his conclusion
like a tonic chord ... He is planted in his own integrity, and there he
stands, gnarled and knotted, perfectly at ease with himself, his roots
deep in earth, his branches held up to let the light in.[10]

So this, finally, is how a Jedi master makes war. 




Also available here.

[1] As Sugi aptly put it in Bounty Hunters.

[2] So great to see another Toydarian besides Watto right out of the gate. And a snappy dresser, too.

[3] In the same book, writer Lawrence Kasdan also refers to his inspiration as Shimada, the lead character in Akira Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai.

[4] The excellent Clone Wars encyclopedia helps explain that the battle droids have been pushed to the limits of their programming: "Some Battle Droids react by talking endlessly about what they're doing, attempting to handle data overflows in their strained logic modules." Makes sense, and I always thought it was kind of funny.

[5] A nice nod to Luke's training scenes on Dagobah a generation later.

[6] Another nice old trilogy nod, this time to Luke's training scenes with old Ben on the Millennium Falcon.

[7] In the coolest bit of meditation since Qui-Gon Jinn gathered his energy during his battle with Darth Maul.

[8] I would like to think this references "shikantaza" in the Soto Zen Buddhist school, literally translated "just sitting."

[9] A quick moment, but nonetheless one of Yoda's grooviest, right up there with the scene in which he walks into Palpatine's office and knocks out two royal guards with a Force-flick of the wrist.

[10] Equally fitting is the fact that Mitchell considered using Yoda as a mouthpiece for his translation of that classic book of Eastern philosophy, the Tao Te Ching.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

THE SAGA IN A PARAGRAPH

 


The Hero With a Thousand Faces 
Joseph Campbell  
Third Edition 
Page 5




The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings,
terrors, and deluding images up into the mind -







whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity;






for the human kingdom,






beneath the floor of the comparatively neat
little dwelling that we call our consciousness,


  




goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves.






There not only jewels






but also dangerous jinn abide:







the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that 
we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives.








And they may remain unsuspected,








or, on the other hand, some chance word, 






the smell of a landscape, 







the taste of a cup of tea,







or the glance of an eye may 
touch a magic spring,






and then dangerous messengers 
begin to appear in the brain.








These are dangerous because they 
threaten the fabric of the security






into which we have built ourselves and our family.







But they are fiendishly fascinating 
too, for they carry keys





that open the whole realm of the 
desired and feared adventure of
the discovery of the self.




 Destruction of the world that we 
have built and in which we live,






and of ourselves within it;







but then a wonderful reconstruction






of the bolder, cleaner, more 
spacious, and fully human life -






that is the lure,







the promise






and the terror,






of these disturbing night visitants from the 
mythological realm that we carry within.




The End

Monday, September 26, 2011

THE BIG CON II


As a veteran of Dragoncon, I have seen fans award their favorite actors and artists with all kinds of things. Though I might have still been reticent about handing out essays to busy people with busy careers, it just adds a little extra spark to my writing life to think Lucasfilm artists might be reading something of mine. I know the brilliant, multi-talented Matthew Wood appreciated my Deconstructing Vader  but, given our share philosophical interests, that was pretty much a given.

Yet as it turned out, there was even more activity on the literary front that weekend. A series of visits to the three central Dealer Rooms proved to be lucrative, though happily in unexpected, inexpensive ways.

I must admit I am a fool for Dealer Rooms, particularly ones as sublime as the Marriott Marquis offers. My first time, I had to stumble around in trembling geek ecstasy, with row after row, aisle after aisle, spilling with those superfluous yet wonderful items so dear to a fanboy heart. This time was no different.

Boxes of comics, lines of costumes, shelves bristling with toys, walls of posters, geeky t-shirts from floor to ceiling, expertly designed film memorablia, DVD cases of old TV favorites, the occasional glittering weapon or jewelry displays, piles of genre books and novels and, of course, more bootleg copies of the Holiday Special than one could shake a handful of Wookiee fur at were all there, waiting to be looted.

Just as well. As many have observed, whatever the problems Hasbro is having with distribution, they're enormous. It's a sad, familiar tale, but like every other fan, I know the bitter taste of disappointment when you walk down that toy aisle in Target or Walmart ... and the same four action figures that have been warming the pegs are still hanging there, mocking you.

My particular poison is Dengar, a Sandtrooper, a Clone Trooper, and that stupid yet ubiquitous Cloud City pilot. And that's just Vintage! Nevermind the new Ahsoka which was supposed to have been out months ago that I've never even seen in a store. And as for the Saga Legends, Fanboys icon Kyle Newman said it best - Saga Losers.

However, that formidable champion of the classic Vintage cardback would have been proud. I finally saw and touched a Vintage Jango Fett and Zam Wessell first hand. I still wish I'd had Morrison sign the Fett, but that ship had already blasted into hyperspace. I walked away from both of them in the end, and also from a ludicrously overpriced Savage Opress (which I happily scored at Toys R Us a week after for a decent price). Still, I could resist buying a Vintage Return of the Jedi Wicket for an incredible eight dollars.

Somewhere, Newman is smiling, and if Warwicke Davis ever manages to make it down South, he's so signing it.

My forays into the Dealer Rooms also presented another bright and shining opportunity. Wandering rather aimlessly, I nonetheless came across a generous display of finely crafted books, which is always a good thing. Better still, they all seemed to focus on genre fiction and scholarly interpretation. Not too surprisingly, they boasted a lot of Joss Whedon inspired material, but also offered a title or two on Star Wars. The handsome banner stretched across the vendor display simply read: McFarland.

Almost by accident, I struck up a conversation with the friendly gentleman selling all the material. As it turned out, the vendor had actually designed a lot of the covers. Stylish and classy, they'd already caught my eye. 

My writer brain picqued with interest, I discovered McFarland and Company had been around for some thirty years, and often specialized in areas where popular art and culture intersects with scholarship and philosophy, the inspired country I could easily immigrate to and live happily ever after in. The books were certainly produced at an exquisitely high quality, despite McFarland being a smaller, university-style press out of North Carolina.

After talking with the vendor about my own writing experience, he surprised me by asking, "Do you think you have a book in you?" 

I'd already told him about my queries for a fiction agent, but he was specifically talking about my Star Wars stuff. The rarest of things, McFarland was actually looking for authors. I replied in the affirmative, he took down my contact information, and presented me with a form for a book proposal.

To be honest, I simply have too much material for the internet. I've spent a year getting notes together, as well as outlining a book on the prequels. If circumstances permit, I would love to do a book on the prequel trilogy, followed by one on the originals, with perhaps a collection of essays or something on the Clone Wars for a finale. 

With the right contacts and recommendations, not to mention social media, they might even be reasonably successful. I'd pondered floating a proposal to Open Court or Pop Smart books, but McFarland is certainly an intriguing contender.


So after this interesting new development, I popped down to the official conference room for the Star Wars track. I had to smile the moment I walked in. 

With familiar posters and banners lining the walls, it was also really imaginatively designed. A small assortment of cracked rocks were designated the "shards of Alderaan;" various crudely-constructed artifacts were right out of the Ewok village on Endor; and a severed Wampa arm was on proud display on the far wall. Best of all, I finally got to see one of those inspired Tauntaun sleeping bags.

I eventually sat down to a live version of a Dragoncon Clone Wars Roundtable a row or two in front of a local friend from the Rebel Legion (Hello, Karen!). But that's the con for you. You and fifty thousand of your closest friends. I also had a good discussion with a guy named Gil sporting a fantastic Clone Wars Obi-Wan uniform. Not to mention a girl who wanted to write a thesis on Dragoncon and its sociological implications (what a read that would be).

As the panel discussion began, I was surprised to see Bryan Young there taking the lead. I had just begun following him on Big Shiny Robot and, after that panel, I've made a concerted effort to read more of his stuff. He was knowledgeable and passionate about the Wars, and certainly impressed me.

With a couple of exceptions, most notably an Indiana Jones panel that I was practically leading a few years back before it was over, I have trouble getting a word in edgewise during these group discussions. Usually I don't even try, content just to listen to the varying and hopefully enlightening opinions. That trend continued, only the one time I did win the floor, it was a topic that had already been discussed on the Forcecast's Clone Wars Roundtable. The issue was when the Clone Wars officially ended.

While still wanting to say something on subjects two topics ago, I did point out that on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin never actually deactivated the legions of battle droids roaming the galaxy as he was ordered to. The arrival of Padme's ship interrupted him. Everyone pretty much argued that there was a time lag between Padme landing and the order, even Young, and that he did finish his mission.

However, everyone was wrong. If you go and watch the scene, it's seamless, with no cuts whatsoever. Anakin's head literally turns from Palpatine's hologram to the beeping controls announcing Padme's ship, so we never actually saw the Clone Wars end on screen. 

A minor point, perhaps, but it's nice to have this blog to set the record straight.


"I wanted to kill that drooling bastard since the first moment I saw him."

Never one for reticence, Carrie Fisher was quick to establish her feelings toward Jabba the Hutt in the packed Atrium Ballroom in the Marriott when I saw her.

It was early in the morning, but Princess Leia was certainly in fine form. Her wit as sharp as a lightsaber, she was enjoying a cigarette in a long silver holder, which always adds a dash of class to nicotine consumption. It was another all-star Star Wars panel playing to an enthusiastic audience.

Peter Mayhew was in attendance again, eventually fielding questions about the Blu-Ray release. "George fixes things for the better ninety percent of the time," Peter remarked, admittedly followed by a derisive little snort from Fisher, which was actually pretty funny.

Still popular with adults and children alike, Ashley Eckstein was also there. I don't think anyone asked the "How will Ahsoka die?" question, but she did make clear how "directly involved" George Lucas is with the Clone Wars series. 

This is a point Dave Filoni likewise made during his last Star Wars Insider interview. So yeah, it's canon.

On a personal note, I would like to add that this means Even Piell did in fact die in the Citadel episodes. Period. The Character Encyclopedia will back me up here.

The swarthy Temuera Morrison also had a place at the table, offering some interesting tidbits here and there. As his charming New Zealand accent nicely filled the vast room, he felt that, "I owe my career to my voice." 

While no one can underestimate the talent of Dee Bradley Baker who manages to imbue each clone trooper with a distinct inflection every week, I was surprised to learn Morrison was eager for a phone call to ask him to lend his own voice to the Clone Wars series. That would have been really interesting.

In the end, though, it was Carrie Fisher who really stole the show. It was a pretty big deal for me. No matter how large the ballroom was, she was there and I was there, occupying the same space. I had never been so close to one of the Big Three from the original trilogy and, when you really start to think that she was there from the beginning, it's pretty amazing.

Of course, when I was four or five, I was completely convinced I was going to marry Princess Leia, but that's another story.

It was really nice to hear her relay experiences from the set of the "holy trilogy," as well as giving props to George Lucas. 

"He invented a whole universe," she admitted, writer to writer. "Hemmingway didn't do that." A very good point, and one that never gets brought up in the endless critiques of Lucas' writing.

That said, she is Carrie Fisher, and it seems to be a full time job. When talking about recording the holographic message to Ben Kenobi, she quipped about the insufferable dialogue in that scene being the reason why she'd had to have "electroshock treatment." 

Again, the juxtaposition between her and her fictional Alderaanian princess persona is always ripe for comedy, which she certainly wasn't shy about mining.

"He's in a f*ing plastic mask," she likewise noted, commenting on her frustrations everytime David Prowse would forget or mess up his dialogue and then ask for another take. It's just not the sort of language Leia would use. 

On a side note, I also like Fisher's analysis of reality television: "I spent years trying to escape reality. I don't want to watch it on TV."

Inevitable at a convention, an audience member memorably fired off a question about the infamous Holiday Special. Peter Mayhew shrugged it off as just a job, though he did reference the fact that his Wookiee family onscreen had a curious tendency to be acted by the wrong sex. 

As for Fisher, she just smiled into the microphone and joked, "They use that instead of waterboarding now, I hear."

Given the appreciative roar of laughter and applause from the audience, I think we can assume she was joking ... probably.


On our last night at Dragoncon, my significant other and I made our way past the Loft bar in the Marriott. Incidentally, probably the best place to people watch ever, not to mention you never know what stars are going to pop up there. With our friend Alex gone and her ARTC shows finished, Patti and I decided to check out one last panel.

I suggested the "Adult Themes in Star Wars" discussion, not really knowing just how, um, "adult" those themes were going to be. No refined philosophical or symbolism discussions here. Playing to a room stuffed with fans, the panel seemed uncommonly interested in who was really sleeping with who, the implications ranging across species as well as sides of the Force. 

It was mildly amusing for about five minutes, but by the time the conversation turned to Sith lightning as an aphrodisiac, it was pretty much time to bail.

At least we did run into another acquaintance of ours out on the floor (Hey, Louis), not to mention just lose ourselves one last time in all the sights and sounds the con had to offer. I would say smells too but that's a pretty dicey proposition on the last day of any con.

It was that bittersweet time when whatever is currently passing for reality was encroaching on the fun. And like deepsea divers coming up from the depths, one can't just re-enter said reality too quickly. There really does need to be some sort of decompression chamber for the transition back into mundane life, a life where one doesn't pass a stormtrooper or a Jedi every five minutes.

(And keep in mind all of this was just the Star Wars relevant half of the con!)

On the plus side, I did spot a familiar sight towering over the costumed throngs before we left. Familiar and furry. It was none other than a life-size Chewbacca, somehow navigating the busy, half-intoxicated crowds.

I'd seen the costume before, so I quickly slid over and asked for a picture. I doubt we could much be heard over the noise, but he did nod. 

I gently put an arm around his imposing form, but this Chewie was having none of it. He wrapped me in a furry headlock and pulled me close, as in character as a human playing a Wookiee could be. Patti took a great picture, and what better way to end a con?

Best. Hug. Ever.



P.S. Dragoncon TV is one of the greatest things about the con. Our mutual friend/acquaintance from the Atlanta Radio Theater Company plays the older Obi-Wan in this clip.

P.P.S. And if you need another great blog/site to Force-flood your fandom, check out Secrets of the Force!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

THE BIG CON


Whether it was the will of the Force or not, a day or so before Dragoncon, the "Nooo" Blu-Ray controversy erupted across the internet. I'm sure everyone privy to this can understand my growing trepidation.

In Atlanta, GA, Dragoncon takes place every Labor Day weekend. The biggest con in the Southeast, it is a unique four day adventure, a sublime descent into perpetual fandom. Awesome celebrities, brilliant costumes, fascinating panels, homemade robots, author readings, avant garde musicians, wallet-breaking dealer rooms, and about sixty thousand fans make up the spine of the convention.

Words always abandon me when it comes to capturing the true essence of Dragoncon. Perhaps a friend summed it up best when he described it as Halloween, Christmas, and New Year's Eve, all rolled into one. It is a time of ecstatic, fan-driven revelry, because in this case, the geeks truly inherit the Earth. For four days anyway.

So naturally I was concerned. As a Star Wars fan, I didn't want my highly-anticipated weekend to dissolve into a bitch-and-moan fest about new changes to the "holy trilogy" and the ruined childhoods that inevitably followed. Fandom had just turned a corner, too, right before lapsing back into its all too familiar, bipolar habits.

Still, I needn't have worried. After getting my con badge in record time thanks to a co-worker in line (good job, Todd) and a new scanning system, I made my way from the Sheraton down to the Hilton. Already, costumed characters were deftly navigating increasingly crowded sidewalks with the practiced ease of veteran con-goers. There was a tangible excitement growing in the air, as though the city itself were anxiously waiting for the geek-inspired madness to finally erupt.

Appropriately, I saw an astromech droid beeping and whirring in the middle of a crowd of excited families the moment I stepped out of the Atlanta heat and into the merciful cool of the Hilton lobby. And not just any astromech droid, but the astromech droid. A fully-functioning, lovingly-crafted R2-D2 was winning considerable attention, with male and female, young and old, all eagerly posing to have their picture taken with him.

This is Star Wars, I thought to myself, breathing a silent sigh of relief. No angry internet posts, no ponderous petitions, no grumbling and complaining. No matter their age, everyone was six years old again and grinning from ear to ear. 

This was the real magic of the saga, no matter how lost in the shuffle it might get sometimes. The moment was brilliant in its genuiness and sincerity, and as fresh and spontaneous as it was that long ago summer of 1977. And I then knew, if I didn't already, that this power as intangible as the Force itself was never going away, despite all the anonymous legions of critics and second-guessers.

I have to admit, as I lined up for my own photo of R2, I had a nostalgic Fanboys moment, one that Dragoncon always promised and rarely failed to deliver.

We're home, boys.

Not too surprisingly, when I arrived with my crew the next day, my second panel was a Star Wars one in the Hyatt. And what a Wars panel to jumpstart the weekend with, featuring the likes of the gargantuan Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in four of the films; Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano in the Clone Wars; and Tom Kane, who famously voices Yoda but also a plethora of others. As usual, they were all as talented, gracious, and funny as any fan could have asked for.

Unfortunately, I was a tad late, having yet to find my con-footing in the now five hotels that play host to the event. As a ten year veteran, I have very little excuse on that front, no matter the width and breadth of the endless ballrooms and conference suites begging to be investigated. I snagged a decent seat, though I was proud to see there was barely standing room before it was all over. As I said, the Wars just aren't going away.

It was also gratifying to hear Tom and Ashley saying early on that they personally loved all the films, and they were all Star Wars. Even better was the resounding applause this elicited from the Force-inspired audience. It nicely cleansed the palate after days of online moaning over the Blu-Ray edition.

Early on, Ashley expressed my own feelings again, remarking how great the saga was going to be once the Clone Wars were complete, and the whole canon could be watched in its entirety. This right before a little kid bravely stepped up to the microphone and asked her how dirty Ahsoka got while fighting those "lizards" in the season three finale.

I should point out another boy stepped up to the plate not long after to make sure they knew the correct species name was "Trandoshan." Perhaps another Leland Chee of the Holocron fame in the making?

Anyway, I should also point out how great these actors were with the real fans inheriting the Force, namely the kids. It must have been awesome to be in the same room with Ahsoka, Yoda, and Chewbacca at such a young age. My mind probably would have overheated like an excited radiator. Quite frankly, it still did, especially when Tom Kane broke out the Yoda voice, a voice poignantly recognizable and pregnant with mythic resonance.

Ashley assured the first boy that her on-screen persona did indeed get "very" dirty during her ordeal, answering with that sweet sincerity that could be her tradework. Since Chewbacca made his animated debut in those episodes, Tom assured the audience that at least she didn't need as much shampoo as her Wookiee companion, to which the iconic Peter Mayhew agreed. "You should see the water bill."

After deftly fielding the inevitable "How does Ahsoka die?" question, Ashley was really put on the spot when a little girl asked her who Anakin cared the most about, Ahsoka or R2-D2. Ashley admitted to being biased but, as it turns out, her own personal favorite is R2. Tom sensibly added that surely Anakin has a "backup for R2 on a harddrive somewhere." 

Ashley also expressed interest in another team-up between Ahsoka and Barriss Offee, clearly enjoying that dynamic as much as the fans.

But it was all fun. One of the highlights of panel was Ashley harkening back to another acting job, that of Jan Brady in The Brady Bunch television movie. She expertly and colorfully paraphrased that character's catchphrase: "Yoda, Yoda, Yoda!"

Speaking of the little green master, Tom admitted a lot of the work he's done with the character has come from his own insight and understanding. After all, he's done twenty times more Yoda than Frank Oz now, much of which has no frame of reference or template at all.

He also spoke of his other characters, including the Narrator voice which gives the classic vibe of an old-time radio announcer before every episode. While he missed the opening crawl in the Clone Wars movie, he thought it worked very well on television, which is true enough. 

Then he proclaimed the role of the Narrator as "small but very important," giving the same great inflection that the announcer does, much to the delight of the audience.

His other most well-known character is of course Yularin, who Tom is very interested in, particularly his rise to the admiral we see in the Death Star. "As a fan, I want to know," Tom remarked, right as an ice cream truck or something started backing up next to the exit door I was camped out by. 

Over the dull blare of the noise, I did notice that Tom used the word "mindful" to describe his awareness of all the talented people who can do Yoda's voice, so key points for that.

By the time the truck outside had apparently slid into a parking place, Ashley recounted a story about her nieces and nephews. With her impressive Star Wars credentials, it's become an issue over who gets to sit next to her at dinner, which she described as providing some nice bonding moments. 

Seriously, can you imagine being a kid and having Ahsoka for an aunt? 

Anyway, she also admitted to having showrunner Dave Filoni on speed-dial to ensure she doesn't give any secrets away when she's being needled for questions, which probably isn't a bad idea.

After another round of questions regarding everyone's favorite Clone Wars episodes, the topic invariably turned to the end of season three. Peter Mayhew spoke a little about his original stint on Star Wars, emphasizing that it was so important that it was "his own eyes seen on screen." Given the furry Wookiee costume, that was about all he had to work with.

Everyone was happy to learn Peter actually went to Skywalker Ranch to ensure the animators got the look and walk of Chewbacca just perfect. "It was a labor of love to get the hair and everything right," he said. It was indeed and, as always, it showed on screen.

Arguably the best moment came when a fan asked the three stars who they thought shot first in the cantina, Han Solo or Greedo. Tom sided with Han, Ashely opted out, but Peter had the best reply to that burning question which has kept fanboys up at night for the past fourteen years.

"I didn't see," he deadpanned, thinking back to that long ago cantina. "I was too busy finishing my drink."


Of course, no Dragoncon would be complete without a visit to the Hall of Fame, that huge set of banquet rooms on the upper floor of the Hilton that is lined with row after row of tables. Stationed behind said tables are all the sci-fi and fantasy celebrities hosted by the con, with autograph hounds and picture seekers alike continuously winding around them.

The Hall of Fame is where I'd first seen David Prowse, the original Darth Vader, and met the always awesome Ray Park, who portrayed the high-kicking, devil-faced Darth Maul. It was a good scene for Darths, though no Sith Lords were on my agenda that day. First up was a bounty hunter. With deference to his son Boba, perhaps the bounty hunter.

While boasting no helmeted armor that afternoon, Jango Fett was nonetheless towards the back of the hall, live and in person.

"Hi, I'm Paul," I cleverly said, stepping up to the table with hand extended. Already standing, the New Zealand-born Temuera Morrison gave me an appropriately strong handshake, as one might expect from the man who played one of the baddest bounty hunters in the galaxy. "Nice to meet you, Paul."

It didn't surprise me to learn later on that Morrison was in fact the voice of Air New Zealand. The guy has a really great accent, on-screen and in-person. Of course, I can't recall a lot of the conversation, because one does get a little star-struck at these things. The first time I met Peter Mayhew, I had an almost five minute conversation with him. While I'm told I acquitted myself quite well, to this day I can barely remember a word.

I do recall Morrison and I briefly chatting about Daniel Logan, who of course played his son in the film. While I didn't meet him, I did see him at a panel last year. Funny and gregarious, Daniel regaled us with behind-the-scenes comedy, including the times he had to pull a fully-costumed Morrison out of the Lazy-Boy chair in his room because he couldn't stand up. 

All the armored duds may be very impressive onscreen, but one good push in reality and even Vader would be on his back like a helpless turtle.

"It's great that both of you have made an appearance here," I remarked, as I picked out a nifty photo for an autograph. 

"Daniel's a great kid," Morrison acknowledged, signing the pic with gusto. 

"Yeah, if only we could bring him out of his shell," I joked, gratefully getting my autograph.

Of course, I had something for him, too. As a Star Wars scholar and essayist extraordinaire (or so I tell myself), I had made a point to compose a few pages on the characters brought to life by several of the actors in attendance. Slipping him a folder, I watched him flip through my Jango Fett analysis ("Father of the Hunt" for the curious, which will inevitably debut somewhere). 

"Thanks," Morrison said with a quick, Jango-esque nod. "I need you guys to keep me informed about all this. You all know more about him than I do."

Next stop in the Hall of Fame was down in the left hand corner of the busy room, with a couple of tables reserved for the voice cast of the Clone Wars. As the Force would have it, both Ahsoka and Yoda were there, and I managed to grab a moment with the latter at a rare time when the crowds were down. 

The great Tom Kane was sitting there, looking as wise and alert as the master he brings to life every week. He was also wearing a fantastic baseball jersey shirt with one simple word inscribed across it: Jedi.

After getting the requisite introductions out of the way, I firmly shook his hand. "You know, the Clone Wars cast is not simply talented," I began, making sure I had his eye, "But you guys are some of the best ambassadors Star Wars fans could hope for." 

He accepted the compliment graciously, and I think he could tell I meant it. I would tell Ashley the same thing, earnestly trying to convey just how much their contributions to Star Wars have been appreciated, not to mention their accessibility with the fans.

We talked for a few minutes, the conversation soon turning back into what the Wars meant to us. As he'd said earlier, the often derided prequels were as much Star Wars to him as the originals, and I obviously feel the same way. As do most of us, I think.

"And now with the Clone Wars, we're on our third generation of fans," I pointed out, selecting a groovy Yoda pic for him to sign. "I sometimes feel I was the perfect age for the original trilogy, and the perfect age for the prequels." 

Taking my photo, I mentioned how The Phantom Menace had debuted during the summer I was starting my last year of college. As an English major, I'd spent years learning how to analyze stories and interpret poetry and, while not the most marketable skill, it magnified my appreciation of George Lucas and Star Wars a hundredfold.

Never one to pass up a good segue, I likewise presented him with an essay of mine on the first episode of the animated series, Ambush. It analyzed Yoda's adventure with some allusions to Eastern philosophy, and here's hoping he enjoys it. Called "How a Jedi Makes War," it will hopefully appear as a Forcecast editorial in the next month or so. 

Tom thanked me for it and we shook hands again. He also whipped out his Yoda voice on me with the effortless ease of a master, but I was so geeked out I have no idea what he actually said.

By this time, the crowd around Ashley a table over was finally thinning. I'd been fortunate enough to meet her the year before but, predictably, I had another essay in my bookbag. This one can be read online, as it chronicled the season two episode Lightsaber Lost

I'd remarked to her last time how much I'd enjoyed it. I recall she'd gotten a telling sparkle in her eye then, saying, "Wait till you see some of the episodes next season." Now I know that was inspired by the landmark Mortis trilogy, her favorite.

When I finally stepped up to the table, Ashley was readying to leave. "I'm already late for an interview," she explained, kindly offering a quick autograph. 

Since I wanted a moment to actually talk to her, I elected to let a few kids see her instead. It's amazing, but even in a hurry, she was all attentive and generous with her time.

I used my own time wisely until she said she was scheduled to come back. After grabbing something to eat in the food court, I wondered back to the Hilton. Her Universe, Ashley's sci-fi fashion line for women, had set up shop outside the Hall of Fame. After checking out the unique design of the shirts, I went back in and stole a moment with Peter Mayhew.

"I already have your autograph, but I just wanted to tell you how moving Chewbacca's return was in the Clone Wars," I told him, adding, "I didn't expect it to have such emotional resonance for me." 

With his Wookiee-like mane of graying hair, Peter smiled. "It was done right." We talked a few moments and then I got to shake his hand, too. Incidentally, if any of you out there haven't shaken Peter's hand, it's quite an experience. It swallowed my own, easily twice it's size. Just the way it should be.

When Ashley came back around, I remembered her interview with the Force.net correspondent that showed up online last con. 

"So was it with Mandy B?" I asked, establishing a little in-fandom knowledge. The ever sweet and lovely Ashley shook her head. "Nope, I don't have anything lined up with Mandy this year."

To be honest, I wanted to talk to Ashley in particular. Last year, I was once again readying myself to set sail on the sometimes turbulent seas of Star Wars fandom. After the epic Revenge of the Sith, my energy and enthusiasm for the Wars was admittedly waning a bit. Especially after all the interminable infighting about the prequels. 

Or at least it was until the Clone Wars, not to mention this other little show called the Forcecast. When I mentioned the two hosts, Jason and Jimmy Mac, Ashley's own enthusiasm grew.

"Those guys," she said simply, "Are awesome."

"I wouldn't go that far," I replied, only of course I didn't. I joke. Naturally, I agreed wholeheartedly. I took a minute to thank her for all her appearances on the show, telling her just how much we listeners appreciated it. 

"We didn't have that with the prequels, much less with the originals," I remarked, thinking back to those days when three month old interviews in Starlog magazine were the closest thing to interaction we had with our on-screen heroes.

Recounting what I'd told Tom about my experiences with The Phantom Menace in college, I reminded her of my eagerness to get back to writing about that galaxy far, far away. Since we'd last spoken, I'd taken to mainline fandom again, producing any number of works on my own blog as well as for the Forcecast editorials project

I informed her I had enough material for a book or two now (more on that in Part 2), and it all really started again with the republication of my old The Case for Jar Jar essay courtesy of Jimmy Mac.

Presenting her with my Slower and Less Intense essay on Tera Sinube, I assured her it was her own copy. There was maybe a split second with everyone where they all wondered if I expected them to read my stuff then and there. I joked about them having to read it on the spot but no, I at least had the foresight to print out copies ahead of time.

"Well, I do like to ramble sometimes," I admitted, as if anyone reading this hadn't noticed. "But if you ever get really bored, I hope you enjoy reading it."

"Oh, I'll definitely read it," Ashley replied with sincere interest, even adding, "Have you ever done anything on the Mortis trilogy? I would love to read something on that, too." 

I had to shake my head. "Well, I've made a few notes, but nothing dissertation-worthy, yet." However, I promise to work on that in case she comes back with Her Universe next year.

Unable to resist another autograph, I asked her for a picture as well. She graciously agreed, though one of the perils of having a significant other as well as friends who all work for the Atlanta Radio Theater Company is that one often traverses Dragoncon alone. 

This means cameras have to be passed off to willing photographers in line. While I am grateful I got a shot, I would have appreciated if the amateur photographer had waited for me to look ahead and smile after fielding a question about my camera.

From the looks of things, that was just too much to ask. Great one of Ash, though.



Join me for Part Two, in which:
Princess Leia swears like a sailor;
Shards of Alderaan are discovered;
And I get hugged by a Wookiee.