Feature: Powerful objects

The electrifying effect of ‘Star Wars’ memorabilia

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Kids and adults around the world are deeply attached to ‘Star Wars’ memorabilia—reminders of the ways that the movies made them feel.

By David Templeton

“Oh my God! Look! It’s Han Solo. Frozen in carbonite!”

I think it was 20 years ago. Maybe more. I honestly can’t remember the exact year, but the Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium at the Marin Civic Center was hosting a massive exhibition of props, models, sketches, costumes and scenery pieces from the archives of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. It was, I seem to recall, one of the most anticipated and exciting events of the year, enhanced by the fact that, of course, Marin County was the home of George Lucas, and headquarters (then, anyway) of his movie empire.

I attended the exhibition with friends.

Together, we all inched along, as thousands of gawkers walked the maze-like pathway, with little more than a rope separating us from an array of modern wonders sprung from the brain of George Lucas. There were X-Wings and TIE fighters, miniatures used in staging the stunning space battles in the original Star Wars. There were posed-in-action AT-ATs, the massive four-legged battle machines that fought the rebels on the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. There were actual Ewok costumes, looking only slightly less alive than when they appeared in the forest of Endor in Return of the Jedi.

Slowly, we snaked our way past a Lucasfilm wonderland of marvels, feeling no less awe than when we’d visited an exhibition of treasures from the tomb of King Tut. Then we turned a corner.

There, on the wall in front of us, was, for me, the holy grail of all Star Wars artifacts. Han Solo. Frozen in carbonite. It was a perfect replica of the one used in the movie. Or was it … oh my god! It’s the actual thing! The whole scene flashed before my eyes. Han, manacled and menaced by Darth Vader, about to be frozen in a state of artificial respiration for his trip to Tatooine, where the badass bounty hunter Boba Fett would deliver him to the slug-like crime lord Jaba the Hutt. Seconds before the machinery roars to life and Han is encased in a slab of black rock-like carbon, Princess Leia—forced to watch the man she secretly loves be subjected to a high-tech death-like state—steps forward and finally tells Han how she feels.

“I love you,” she says.

“I know,” he replies, and with a blast of steam and noise, he’s gone. The next time we see him, he’s a grimacing statue protruding from a block of rock. It was, when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, one of the most emotionally complex plot devices I’d ever seen, short of maybe Charlotte the spider writing “Some Pig” in her web.

On screen, it was a powerful image.

That afternoon in San Rafael, suddenly coming face-to-face with the real-life Han Solo, looking just as tragic as ever, was nothing short of breathtaking. It was, I must confess, an emotional moment.

OK. OK. It made me cry. I’m man enough to admit it. I actually got so choked up I couldn’t talk for a moment. My friends thought I was having a medical episode. But it was just the power of “Star Wars.”

So what happened?

Was it just that, a hit of nostalgia, an adrenalized rush of memory overload, a moment of surrender to the mythic preeminence of Star Wars, which I first saw when I was 17 years old, living in Los Angeles?

Or was it more? Was it something about the fact that I was beholding an actual object? As the hyperspace-level enthusiasm builds in anticipation of this weekend’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first new Star Wars movie in 10 years, there have been plenty of articles written about Star Wars and the power of objects. Much has been said of how the new film returns to the movie-making methods of the original three films, in which the actors are working within actual physical sets built of wood and iron, talking to robotic characters made of metal and plastic, or aliens made of latex and operated by a puppeteer. FX artists waxed nostalgic about the days they built actual small-scale spaceships and then blew them up on camera.

All of that had changed when Lucas decided to take a more aggressively digital approach to filming his prequels, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. While few could argue that the special effects in those films pushed the envelope of what was possible, creating some pretty impressive visuals, the entire series was criticized for its strangely mathematical, object-less coldness.

Cast members remarked on the difficulty of performing in a world created so much in a computer, having to pretend to engage with sets, props, people and spaceships that were never actually there.

After filming of the new film began, in which director J.J. Abrams has reintroduced actual objects to the filmmaking process, Anthony Daniels, the actor who has played or voiced the winsomely worried robot C-3PO in all of the movies, was widely quoted as saying it was a relief to have actual “stuff” to work with.

On the other hand, when actor Harrison Ford, returning to the franchise as Han Solo, was injured during filming when a hydraulic door closed on his leg, there were probably a lot of people in the producer seats wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have stuck with digital doors and fake spaceships.

Still, there is no doubt that one of the things fans are saying about this new movie is that it will look far more real than the last three, because so much of it actually is real. And with Star Wars, though it is first and foremost a fantasy, a sense of weathered reality has always been one of the series’ most impressive aspects.

I have to say, I was a late convert, having initially dismissed the movie based on its trailers on television, which I thought made the movie look, well, stupid.

It was my swim coach who told me I had to see it.

“It has everything,” he said, becoming uncharacteristically animated, on the morning after he’d seen the movie in Hollywood. “It has swashbuckling. It has spaceships. It has princesses and aliens and bad guys. Trust me, it’s right up your alley.”

My “alley,” as Coach knew, was fantasy adventure: The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, The Chronicles of Narnia. Anything with swordfights.

Star Wars even has swordfights,” he said. “Sort of. They’re called ‘lightsabers’ or something. Anyway. Trust me. You’ll love it.”

He was right. I loved it.

I saw it at least 10 times in the theaters, and bought up a small army of collectible Star Wars items—mugs, figurines, posters, models—just to bring a little of that magic into my home. Three years later, when the sequel—The Empire Strikes Back—was released, I camped out for hours on the sidewalk in front of a theater in downtown L.A., with a pack of friends, just to be one of the first to see the movie on its opening day. And I kept on collecting Star Wars stuff. Not as obsessively as some, but enough to lock me in as a card-carrying nerd. And then, turning that corner at the Civic Center, coming to within a few feet of the world’s greatest Star Wars collectible, the emotion I felt was overwhelming.

And I wasn’t alone.

It was kind of fun, standing there, watching other unsuspecting folks turn that corner and suddenly see Han hanging there on the wall. The looks on those faces were priceless.

So, what’s the deal, exactly? What power do such plastic and plaster artifacts hold over us? Why do we get such a kick out of owning this stuff—or even seeing the real things in exhibitions like that one all those years ago?

Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw,” recalls William Deeths, currently the principal of Altimira Middle School in Sonoma. He was 3 years old when his parents took him to see Star Wars. “We saw it at the Cinema Theater in Corte Madera,” he says, “on that magnificent large screen. I learned later that that’s the theater where George Lucas apparently always took the employees of Lucasfilm to watch the first screening of new Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies.”

For Deeths, the visual power of the movie was just the tip of the iceberg, compared to how excited he was to begin collecting Star Wars action figures. There was just something electrifying, he recalls, about holding those little plastic people in his hands.

“My parents quickly learned,” he says, “that if they ever wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do, like swim lessons, all they had to do was offer to buy me a Star Wars action figure, and I’d go wherever it was they wanted me to go.”

In his office at the middle school, students can see nearly 75 of those original action figures hanging on the wall beside a number of other Star Wars items. He even has a copy of Christmas in the Stars, the rare Star Wars-themed Christmas album that includes such songs as “What Can You Get a Wookiee For Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?)” and “R2-D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The latter, by the way, features the first-ever professional recording performance of Jon Bon Jovi. Deeths likes to play the album for students when they’re sent to the principal’s office, where they get to sit in the presence of all those Star Wars toys.

“When I grew up, I eventually got rid of all my old toys—but I could never get rid of my action figures,” Deeths admits. “There was just something about Star Wars, some deep connection to that movie, that wouldn’t let me get rid of them.”

“There is therapy in objects,” says Mickey McGowan. “They don’t get the respect they deserve, but an object in its natural state is a powerful thing.”

McGowan, of San Rafael, is the curator of the massive collection of objects known as The Unknown Museum, which for years was lodged in a storefront space in downtown Mill Valley. Today, the collection exists within his home, where he occasionally holds private viewings and tours of the thousands and thousands of toys, machines, books, lunch pails and other “stuff” that was castoff in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

McGowan, who includes several toys and other artifacts from the first movie in his collection, suggests that the power of objects is a logical and understandable phenomenon, and that stories of actors preferring to face real robots rather than pretend robots, makes perfect sense. He even understands my emotional reaction to seeing Han Solo frozen in carbonite right before my very eyes.

“It was a healing moment, for you, probably,” he says. “It probably lowered your blood pressure. It gave you some kind of memory-inspired comfort food you needed, and that’s why you had an emotional reaction. I see it all the time with my museum. People see an item that meant something to them as a child, and they burst into tears. It’s the power of objects to return us to another time, to massage our brain cells and make us remember who we were at a different time.”

It’s no accident, McGowan proposes, that sacred totems and ceremonial objects have been used in spiritual ceremonies since the dawn of time.

“An object has honor and meaning in it,” he says. “There really is an emotional power in plastic molded forms. And objects inspired by movies are especially powerful, because they take the sensory experience of watching moving images and hearing sounds, and they condense that sensory experience into a tactile experience. When we touch that plastic Yoda, or stand close enough to an actual slab of carbonite to touch it—of course, you can’t, probably—it makes your brain come alive with all of those memories. If those memories are good, then touching or seeing that object is a potent reminder of the joy you had while watching the film.”

To McGowan, the desire to collect action figures, whether you are a child or an adult, is less about greed, acquisition or the lure of amassing possessions, than it is simply and purely about love.

“An action figure from a movie, or a model of a robot or spaceship from that movie, is a piece of the soul of that film right there in your room,” he says. “An object or item from that movie is a reminder of what you felt when you saw the film. It’s a membership card of a kind, into a special club.

“What kid who just saw Star Wars for the first time didn’t want a 5-inch Millennium Falcon, hanging from a fishing line over their bed,” he continues, “so they could fall asleep dreaming of the movie? That’s not about anything but imagination, excitement and love. All we need is love, right? But we also need things.”

But how many things do we need?

McGowan marvels, nearly 40 years after the release of the first Star Wars film, at the enormous merchandising machine that was created by that movie.

“It’s astonishing how big the merchandising of Star Wars was,” he says. “But it was more than just about making money. It was providing magic in object form, and as a collector of objects, I can’t fault that impulse. The sheer joy of a kid seeing that ’77 movie, and then being able to have a robot from that movie in their room, it’s a powerful and beautiful thing. And that joy inspired an industry to supply more objects to satisfy it. It’s a double-edged sword, definitely. Or should I say a double-edged lightsaber?”

McGowan does worry that much of that wonderful, dream-inspiring merchandise has ended up in landfills.

“I started the museum to save things from the landfill,” he says, suggesting that the best way to keep Star Wars action toys and other items from the landfill is simply to avoid ever getting rid of them. And he would like to give us permission to do that. “If you keep it you are saving it from the landfill, definitely. If you love it, you should save it. If those toys mean something to you, even if you only see them once every few years, they’re a good thing, and you should not be made to feel shame for that. We can’t save everything, I know, but we should.”

And if you can’t keep it, donate it.

“Donation keeps items alive forever,” he says. “The Toy Story movies have made that point quite beautifully. Of course, those movies have become a merchandising machine, too. It’s that double-edged sword again.”

McGowan does plan to see the new Star Wars movie, eventually, and anticipates that its celebrated return to filming actual objects will make it connect powerfully with audiences. And then, of course, those audiences will want to buy plastic versions of all of those objects.

“Then, some day,” he says, “when many of them have been loved and discarded, an artist will come along and take them, and build a pyramid of them or something, and people will come and see the pyramid, and they will feel strong emotions. Whatever they feel, it will be beautiful, and all of those objects—and the power of Star Wars, the power of the human imagination—will still be alive.”

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