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Front Row Seat: Is 'escapism' what we need right now?

The new Star Wars series promises an escape to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — but, our columnist wonders, should we instead keep our attention on the here and now?

Ewan McGregor in character as Obi-Wan Kenobi, wearing brown hood, looks onto a nighttime cityscape. Face is in focus in foreground looking left; background is out of focus.
Ewan McGregor returns to the title role for the limited series "Obi-Wan Kenobi" on Disney+.
Contributed / Lucasfilm Ltd.
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DULUTH — "There's nothing better than Star Wars to escape into right now," said Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy at this year's Star Wars Celebration. When I saw those words tweeted from the official Star Wars account, it gave me pause. This was on Thursday, May 26 — two days after two teachers and 19 children were killed during a school shooting in Texas.

Of course, Kennedy was just doing her job, at a long-planned convention in Anaheim, California. I'm sure I've also expressed sentiments similar to hers many times, particularly during COVID-19 lockdown, when Star Wars books and games helped me while away the long hours of isolation. Still, the sentiment landed uneasily. Is now the right time to advocate "escapes" into fictional universes, when there's so much that urgently needs our attention in the real world?

The big entertainment event coinciding with this year's Star Wars Celebration was the release of the first two episodes of the new Disney+ series "Obi-Wan Kenobi," returning prequel actors Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen to their respective roles as the eponymous Jedi and his student-turned-nemesis, Darth Vader. As in the original "Star Wars" (1977, when the role was played by Alec Guinness), escape is not Kenobi's plan: The plot finds the character forced to emerge from hiding and face enormous risks in the hope of one day defeating the brutal Galactic Empire.

The concept of "escapism" has been a double-edged sword not just for Star Wars, but for the entire generation of big-screen entertainment created by franchise creator George Lucas and his peers. The modern blockbuster era began with "Star Wars" and similarly ubiquitous films like "Jaws" (1975), the latter directed by Lucas associate Steven Spielberg.

Lucas and Spielberg took inspiration from the serial stories they remembered from childhood, but movie mavens at the time blamed the filmmakers for bringing an era of challenging, creative onscreen storytelling to an end in favor of predictable franchise fare. Their films were slammed, by some critics, for feeding a vein of jingoistic feel-good pop culture that obscured the ongoing challenges facing American communities: racism, AIDS, Cold War tensions and more.

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The entertainment's escapist qualities were no coincidence: The breathless action series that inspired Lucas and Spielberg were engineered in part to distract viewers from the agonies of two world wars and a depression. Compared to some of the stuff Lucas grew up on, "Star Wars" was downright subversive. The story came together near the end of the Vietnam War, and Lucas saw the scrappy Rebel Alliance as being akin to the Vietnamese soldiers who held off the United States military machine.

Of course, that was never made explicit, so viewers saw whatever they were looking for when they watched Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. That was fine with Lucas, who never made a secret of his liberal political views (his later prequel films contained somewhat more pointed references to the U.S. government after 9/11), but who truly sought to make family entertainment that everyone could enjoy.

Lucas also, famously, drew on the work of Joseph Campbell, the literature scholar who wrote about the similarities among world mythologies. Ironically, Star Wars wouldn't work so well as escapist entertainment if it didn't grab our attention with the kind of widely resonant characters and challenges that have reflected real-world concerns for centuries.

As an archetype, Obi-Wan Kenobi was the sage elder in the first "Star Wars" movie, and the new series shows one way he gained that hard-won wisdom: grappling with the fact that a man who he considered a "brother" has turned to the Dark Side of the Force. Viewers in 2022, as in many earlier eras, might well relate to the pain of a seemingly irreconcilable moral and political split with a beloved family member.

After reading the tweet about Kennedy's comment, I watched the archived video from Celebration to hear the comment in context. There's little question she had current events in mind: Shortly after stepping onstage, Kennedy alluded to how "everybody is experiencing a lot of tough things happening in the world today. So, if Star Wars can give us a little bit of hope and optimism and something to escape into, I think that's something we all want to do."

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The 2021 Fourth of July parade in Superior included a person in costume as Din Djarin, "The Mandalorian" of Star Wars TV fame.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

Watching Kennedy onstage surrounded by saber-swinging fans, I thought of the touching 1997 documentary "Trekkies," about people who have made Star Trek fandom part of their lives, to what many would consider an extreme extent. (Remember Barbara Adams, the prospective juror who showed up to a 1996 Whitewater trial in a Starfleet uniform?)

What struck me about that film was just how self-aware the documentary subjects were — including Anne Murphy, a Brent Spiner (Lt. Commander Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation") fan who explained how her family understood her need for occasional "Brent breaks" in which she'd peace out and gaze in the direction of Spiner's home.

That may be a little unsettling given that Spiner is an actual person rather than a fictional character, but what was Luke Skywalker doing if not taking his own version of a Brent break when he stood gazing into the setting twin suns of Tatooine? Sometimes you have to look to the horizon to imagine a better world beyond, even if you suspect that won't involve actually marrying Brent Spiner, or attending the Imperial Academy.

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Eventually, though, we have to come back to earth. Luke's Uncle Owen — who appears in the new "Obi-Wan" series and holds a jaundiced view that seems increasingly reasonable — understood that. If Kathleen Kennedy didn't strike quite the right note in her convention remarks, she at least acknowledged that her company's storytelling doesn't actually happen in the vacuum of space.

As a fan, I appreciate that; and I try to remain suitably wary of the fact that as fun as Star Wars is, it's a little lazy to get a lot of your entertainment from a single science fiction franchise that's owned and operated by a very large, very profit-oriented corporation. Fortunately, I live and work in a community full of working artists and grassroots organizations that provide ample opportunity for real-world engagement and a form of escapism that doesn't require going quite so far, far away. Not even to Anaheim.

Short cuts

While we're talking about popular streaming series, let's not forget the new season of "Stranger Things" on Netflix. In honor of the initial episodes' release, Duluth balloon artist Laural Schultze (a.k.a. Lauralloons) shared a photo of her 2019 Halloween costume: She dressed as Dustin, one of the young heroes from "Stranger Things." In the show, Dustin is a fan of the 1984 movie "The NeverEnding Story," so Schultze used balloons to create the head of Falkor, a "luck dragon" who comes to the rescue in that movie. "I follow lots of other balloon artists and I saw the idea for a ‘rideable’ Falkor from 'The NeverEnding Story' by balloon artist JJ Szabo," Schultze wrote in an email to the News Tribune. "When I saw season three of 'Stranger Things' I knew I wanted Dustin/Falkor to be my costume! I’ve really enjoy incorporating balloons in costumes/cosplays, they play big while still (being) lightweight. It really puts the POP in pop culture."

Laural Schultze, a white woman dressed as a boy in denim vest and baseball cap, raises her fist in the air and smiles as she appears to ride a white dragon head made of balloons.
Laural Schultze in character as the "Stranger Things" character Dustin Henderson, riding a luck dragon as seen in the movie "The NeverEnding Story," for Halloween 2019.
Contributed / Laural Schultze

This week's column is about the balance between escape and engagement in the arts. A play that lands on the knife-edge between them is coming to the NorShor on Friday: "Glensheen," the 2015 musical written by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and songwriter Chan Poling (The Suburbs). It might seem tasteless to write a stage musical — a dark comedy, at that — about the brutal murders of two innocent women, but what Poling and Hatcher have accomplished is a show that at once acknowledges the gravity of the crimes and explores the challenging family circumstances that surrounded them. The show is a moving and, yes, highly entertaining meditation on what happens when family grievances turn tragic. A History Theatre production presented by the Duluth Playhouse, "Glensheen" runs from June 3-12. For tickets and information, see duluthplayhouse.org.

I had a fun day last week: Researching a feature about local stickers, I visited shops in three Duluth neighborhoods looking for fun decals. The focus of that story is the kind of permanent vinyl stickers people like to put on water bottles or laptops, but at the J. Skylark toy shop in the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace, I spotted a selection of stickers on rolls of paper, displayed on a Sandylion branded rack. I immediately flashed back to my 1980s childhood, when my siblings and I loved buying small, detailed stickers like these to put in our albums. A little research revealed that Sandylion, founded in 1982 and sold to Trends International (which currently packages the stickers as "Essentials") in 2010, gained new life in the 2000s scrapbooking boom. Now I may have to dig out my old sticker books; as I recall, there are some totally tubular Duluth souvenir stickers in there.

Rows of sticker rolls — featuring imagery like cake, farm animals, and zoo animals — against a brick wall in a retail shop.
Rolls of stickers were on sale at the J. Skylark toy shop in Duluth's DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace on May 25.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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