Paint Schoodic

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Building lightsabers

Steampunk and Star Wars both tinker with our headlong rush into the future.

Lightsaber built by Matthew Krahling, photo courtesy of Emerson Champion.
Sometimes when I fly, I wonder what life will be like when airplanes are obsolete. Will a few examples be lovingly preserved and sailed like the schooner fleet on the Maine coast? This weekend, I decided that those relics will probably look like Star Wars.

I might be alone among Americans in having almost no exposure to George LucasStar Wars franchise. I saw the first movie on its release. It struck me then as lovely, light and energetic, but I didn’t look for any deep themes. Nor did I feel the need to see the rest of them. While I understood the references to Arthurian legend, chivalry and the Samurai, these are universal themes.

Of course, Star Wars references are embedded in popular culture. We remember President Reagan calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” and people intoning, “May the Force be with you.”

Lightsaber built by Matthew Krahling, photo courtesy of Emerson Champion.
This week, I saw my parents’ godchild for the first time in many years. Matthew is one of a small coterie of enthusiasts who make lightsabers as a hobby. Why would a smart, engaged young person choose this as a creative outlet?

At age 34, Matthew has grown up in a completely digitalized media world. “People my age are sick of animation,” Matthew told me. “It all looks the same.”

That slickness reflects where he lives: the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan sprawl. It’s one of four mega-cities in America. However, its culture is shared by every large American city: excessively groomed landscapes, traffic jams, box stores and cookie-cutter houses. His generation’s longing and need for authenticity runs deeper than media.

For the original Star Wars film, the props were constructed by special-effects expert John Stears from old press camera flash battery packs and other bits and pieces.  Set designer Roger Christian found the handles for the Graflex side-attach flash in a photography shop in London.

Lightsaber built by Matthew Krahling, photo courtesy of Emerson Champion.

As Matthew talked to me about lightsabers and their devotees, I was keenly reminded of another contemporary aesthetic movement, Steampunk. It is often traced back to the science-romances of Jules VerneH.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley. It’s overtly Victorian in its trappings, but its most important hallmark is the way it mixes digital media with traditional craftsmanship. In that, it directly quotes Star Wars

Lightsaber built by Matthew Krahling, photo courtesy of Emerson Champion.
“The Star Wars universe is the universe in which some of the most respected things can be no greater than my old truck was in real life,” wrote an anonymous fan on the internet. “Lived-in, used, repaired, and somewhat dilapidated, but still of purpose.” In other words, it is a culture of tinkerers.

Steampunk answers the need to modify and control our headlong rush into the future. In 1977, we barely had a glimmer of what that future—controlled and controlling—would be. In retrospect, all that tinkering looms as a landmark aesthetic statement.

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