Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Unbearably Cruel Star Wars Embargo

My four-year-old son is crazy about "Star Wars." It has officially supplanted Spider-Man as the only thing he wants to talk about. He can identify all the major characters (adorable mispronunciations notwithstanding), classify them as good guys or bad guys, and match them to the spacecraft they travel in.

Not exactly prodigy-level stuff, but I find it interesting in light of one fact: He has never seen any of the "Star Wars" movies.

He is not alone among his little peers in this: most of the kids he knows and hangs out with haven't seen the movies either, but that doesn't stop any of them from endlessly debating, analyzing, praising, and speculating about their content. Is it "lightsaber" or "lightsaver"? I overheard a 10-minute argument on this topic, and both sides were surprisingly well-reasoned. The details of Darth Vader's transformation from good guy to bad guy are hazy, but the broad strokes are understood as a given. These movies have permeated the culture to a degree on par with folk legend. If the movies somehow vaporized completely out of existence (a proposition I would not oppose when it comes to the prequels), I feel like kids would still talk about them and obsess over them, rewrite what they were told, pass it down, etc. Eventually it would be remade based on a generations-long game of telephone, the remakes of the remakes eventually bearing no resemblance to the original but retaining every bit of their sway over huge swaths of humanity. You know, like the Bible.

A person might reasonably ask, "Why hasn't he seen the movies?" Well. His mother and I made a conscious decision when he was born to limit his TV viewing. And by "limit" I mean "completely disallow."  We don't intend this to be a lifelong ban, but it seems a good idea that he learns to read and think and amuse himself before he starts vegging out in front of Nickelodeon or whatever. I'd hate to see the glazed, blank expression so many little kids wear when watching TV become his default, especially having seen what his imagination is capable of left to his own devices.

So, around the time the boy was born, we replaced our TV with a high-definition video projector, and set it up in the basement, where the boy rarely goes. (We only use it at night, when he's asleep.) "Out of sight, out of mind" has proven to be a true maxim in this case: No TV in our living area means the boy does not pester us to watch TV. He doesn't even think of it as an option.

And our logic seems to have been vindicated: he is perfectly happy drawing pictures at the kitchen table literally for hours. He loves to go to the library and get new books for bedtime, and usually can't wait that long to read them. I have come to love the sound of him talking to himself as he invents ever more complex scenarios for his action figures, alone in his room, happily chirping and muttering away.

Since this is the only kid I have, I have no idea if any of this would be any different if we had TVs on in every room all day and all night. My brother's kids are living that way, and they don't seem any less curious or intelligent or creative than our boy does-- in fact their daughter is way ahead of him on the ABCs, and she's a year younger than him.

But now that we've started down this path, I feel like we're committed to it. We took a family ski trip to Quebec recently that had us spending three nights in hotel rooms, and not surprisingly, the boy was obsessed with the TVs in every room, despite the fact that all the programming was in French. During his ski lesson -- during his ski lesson -- he said he wanted to go back to the room and watch TV. Every time we left the room, he talked about wanting to go back and watch TV.

Of course, we created this monster: if he watched TV every day, he wouldn't care nearly so much about it. We've unwittingly set it up as a forbidden fruit, an extra-special treat, so he wants it in a way that a kid who has it all the time does not. And at this point, even if we decided to let him watch TV (in this case the projector) at home, I'm afraid he would go into a catatonic haze right there on the couch, not eating, not sleeping, a thin thread of drool dangling from his bottom lip. We've made our bed, and now we have to lie in it.

And here's where we come back to "Star Wars." I wonder if his obsession with it would be the same if he had seen the movies or not. Since he hasn't (indeed, has never asked to watch the movies or ever seemed to realize that it's an option), he is left to pore over the abundant tie-in merchandise for clues to their content.

He just got a completely insipid book about R2-D2 rescuing C-3P0 and took it to preschool for show-and-tell, had me read it to him at bedtime that night, and had his mom read it to him the next morning. It has supplanted a marginally more interesting comic book about Luke and Yoda training on Dagobah, about which he was similarly obsessed for weeks. His favorite toy, by far, is his set of "Star Wars" Legos. (We do allow him a little YouTube, and he loves, loves the "Lego Star Wars" videos, which I have to admit are a kind of genius.) He wears "Star Wars" pajamas every night (until they start to smell and we have to remind him that he still likes Spider-Man, too).

As a first-generation "Star Wars" kid, I don't have any problem with any of this: my parents took me to the first movie in the theater the summer it came out, when I was about the age he is now. I grew up on it, I love it, I know it's harmless, and I am completely okay with him loving on it the way he is. It would be un-American to feel otherwise.

But would he be so obsessed with trying to piece together these movies if he could just see them? Moreover, would access to the movies take some of the fun out of it all? Does having to work so hard for it make it better? Forbidden fruit is all the sweeter.

This may be one reason the prequels were so disappointing: the backstory was somehow more vivid and more compelling when it existed only as cryptic lines of dialogue in the original trilogy. We had to work to imagine what happened. We had to speculate about what exactly the clone wars consisted of. We had to imagine what drove Anakin Skywalker to the dark side. We could only dream what an army of Jedi Knights would look like in action. Then the prequels came along and filled in all those blanks with a boring set of movies and took all the work, all the imagination, all the fun out of it.

Every movie we've taken him to has scared the hell out of him at one point or another, so we have felt that the movies would terrify him -- think about Darth Vader, in living color, through the eyes of a four-year-old-- and kept him away, but at this point I think he would find the inner strength to get through "Star Wars." And, thanks to a miscommunication with a new babysitter (totally my fault), he is now hip to the presence of the projector in the basement -- though, oddly, he has not asked to watch it since the cat got out of the bag.  So I'm sure it will happen soon.
The burden of being his guide through the "Star Wars" experience, of curating this material responsibly, is one I take seriously. I would love to pretend that the original trilogy is all there is and ignore the rancid and unwatchable prequels -- and fully intend to -- but his dedicated study of "Star Wars" literature has alerted him to the likes of Anakin, General Grievous, and the Clone Troopers. Not sure how best to navigate those rough waters. (Last night he was confused to see the Clone Troopers called in to assist some Jedi Knights in that R2-D2 book. "But Clone Troopers are bad guys," he protested. I found myself unable to explain how and why the Clone Troopers are turned from good guys into pawns of the Emperor, at least not in a way that a 4-year-old can understand. I barely understand it myself. Thanks again for those prequels, George!)

The series is coming out on Blu-ray in the fall, and I may just prolong the wait until then -- I know little kids don't care about video resolution, but it seems worthwhile to make his first "Star Wars" experience happen on a 100-inch screen in 1080p resolution, comparable to when I first saw them in the theater. (A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...)
Either way, I'm really looking forward to seeing it again for the first time, through his wide, eager eyes.

1 comment:

  1. We have the original trilogy on DVD. Aaron saw it on sale in Target and couldn't resist picking it up. Had a 3 day Star Wars bender, where they watched one movie each night, Aaron explaining pretty much every frame, since Z couldn't seem to make heads or tails out of what was going on. The thing is, I think he prefers the "Star Whirs" in his head a lot more. He hasn't asked to watch the movies since, and he still talks Star Whirs constantly and constructs elaborate Star Whirs scenarios all over our home out of Legos and any and all moveable household objects. I think the world in his imagination is more fluid and exciting to him.
    And we let him watch TV and play Lego Star Wars on the computer all of the time. I have to admit, somewhat guiltily, that I rely upon drooling screen-induced catatonia to keep Z from killing his little brother while I attempt to cook/shower/clean/pee/etc. ( I also have to guiltily admit that the guilt subsides with time.)
    Anytime you want to set up a screening with the boys let me know. I don't think H's fantasy world will be altered.