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Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

Another New World

On the one hand my degrees of separation from some folks have been very small – just one degree of separation from Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.  And only two or three steps of separation from the late Fidel Castro.  And I’ve been lucky enough to have met such folks as James Earl Jones and Michael Palin and Leonard Nimoy (not that they’d remember me).

But, really, I don’t move in high circles.  So I never got a chance to meet the late Carrie Fisher.  Like most folks of my age, I was a fan of the Star Wars pictures.  And we loved that Carrie Fisher was hanging out with the Dan Akroyd and John Belushi – the SNL crowd.  They might have been “Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time,” but they were cool. You weren’t a part of that kind of cool, of course.  You’re a pimply teen in mid-America.  But because you got the jokes and the humor, you kind of got the notion that you were on the “inside.”  It gave you the possibility of cool that you didn’t actually possess.

So my favorite Carrie Fisher moment isn’t from a movie, it’s from an interview that Carrie Fisher did on “Late Night with David Letterman” in the early 1980s.  Carrie was on Letterman’s show to publicize Return of the Jedi

Carrie and Letterman chat amiably for a little and then go to the inevitable clip.  The clip shows Carrie Fisher and anonymous storm troopers on impossible personal flyers jetting through a forest.  We come back from the clip.  Letterman observes that the action must have been thrilling to film.  Carrie counters that it’s mostly sitting on a gussied-up hobby-horse in front of a green screen.  Letterman immediately stops Carrie and says something like, “Oh, no. Don’t say that.  Those things are real.”  Carrie laughs and agrees, “Yeah, they’re real.  We were flying through a forest.”  Letterman cleans up with faux seriousness something like, “Yeah, the Russians have had ‘em for years.”

Curiously, we were educated enough viewers in the early 80s to have an idea about Green Screen tech.  So, the joke is a little “meta” and a little ironic.  Carrie and Letterman let us in on the cool.

And there’s another element to this story that tells us something about where and who we are.

The forest chase on jet-cycles is pure Star Wars.  I recently saw the newest addition to the Star Wars filmography, Rogue One.  At important points in the film people jump into space ships, start flipping switches, and immediately start flying to wherever they need to go.  The late film critic suggested that the first film, A New Hope, was a Western in its essential qualities.  All space ships in Star Wars behave like smart horses. You jump in them, they go.

There’s no thought about the effects of friction in leaving an atmospheric envelope.  There’s no worry about leaving a moving, spinning body. There’s no worry about the thrust needed to break free from gravity.  There’s no worry about the engine output in terms of particles or noise for people standing very close by to the exiting space ship.  Once we’re in space, there’s no worry about how to think about a ship moving in three-dimensions.

Rather the space ships are smart horses – anyone can ride them.  And that’s the key to Star Wars, I think. 

Star Trek has similar plot-device-driven “science.”  We need to get the actors down to the planet below, so we hop on a transporter plate and beam down.  We can get on with the story.

But the place where Star Wars wins over Star Trek is that to pilot a ship in the Star Trek universe, you have to go to an academy.  You need special training to pilot a space ship.

In the Star Wars universe, anyone can leap into a ship or onto a jet cycle and immediately go on an adventure.  It doesn’t hurt that our first hero in the Star Wars universe is Hans Solo, a guy who likes to work on “cars” – as we know from having seen him in American Graffiti.  Hans Solo, played beautifully by Harrison Ford, is a shade-tree mechanic.  If he can pilot a space ship, so can I.

In the aftermath of 2016, there are some folks who think that the economic distress in American communities only came to the fore recently.  Not so. 

In the 1970s, in the aftermath of the first energy crashes, it became clear that certain industries and industrial processes were going to go away.  The “Rust Belt” started getting called that back in the Reagan years, so it already was rusty.  And the march of time hasn’t stopped the rust. 

In the midst of this period of transformation is a shiny example of extreme populism – any man (or, indeed, any kid) can jump in a space ship and have an adventure.  Fight in a war.  Shoot a ray gun.  Rescue a cool and pretty girl.

Sure, you can gussy it up with some Joseph Campbell trimmings, but the essential is that anyone can fly a space ship.

Sometimes the empathetic power of our art – movies and theatre – is both so overwhelming and so subtle that we don’t even see it. It’s like a fish looking at the water.

Rather than simply suspending our disbelief as the old saying would have it, when we see certain things acted out – we get the pleasure of doing it.  I think this is particularly true of those objects which we long for. 

If I’m a guy in Cleveland or Youngstown, and the plants are laying off – there’s a galaxy far away where I can leap into a space ship and have adventure.

There are a number of clich├ęs that we could list now, including “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.”  But you know all of those. 

So, I’m not going to finish with some admonition to watch the stories you tell, or to tell the stories your audience needs to hear, or some other high-sounding business.

Nope.

I’m just remembering a young woman jetting through the forest, fighting faceless and nameless villains and winning.

The Russians have had ‘em for years.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2017 Nathan Thomas
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

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February 2017

Volume 17 Issue 9

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