Thursday, May 25, 2017

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982)

Today's entry is eccentric. In its spinning and turning, it will catch a renowned artist, poet, and critic; a pop singer who cast herself as a witch; an actress who played a princess; two worldwide pop-cultural phenomena; a song about dreams; and the dreams themselves of countless young people--dreams of quest and conflict and a chance at becoming a hero in a battle that never ends. Among those who dream and who have dreamed were four boys who, on a day forty years ago, sat in a darkened theater in Indianapolis, eagerly awaiting the start of a movie that would prove unlike any before it, even if it was drawn from tales as old as storytelling. My older brother had seen the movie before. My younger brother, his friend Tom, and I had not, but we were excited in a way that only children can be excited to see a movie about which we had heard so much. Not long before that day at the Eastwood--a theater now laid low by the passage of time--the movie had opened across the country and had almost instantly become a sensation beyond any moviegoing experience before it. Nothing before and nothing after--not even Jaws from two summers before--would match what it became in the year and more following its release. It has since grown into a franchise, moreover, a worldwide phenomenon. The movie was of course Star Wars. It came out forty years ago today, on May 25, 1977.

Strange details stick in your head. I remember that as we waited to see Star Wars, a song played in the theater. (Those were the days before commercials were shown before the movie begins.) The song was "Dreams," by Fleetwood Mac, from the album Rumours. I didn't know it at the time, but Rumours was released on February 4, 1977, not long before Star Wars came out. It was a sensation, too, and became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. "Dreams" reached number one on the pop-music charts on June 18, 1977, probably around the time the four of us went to see Star Wars. (Our seeing it was an early birthday present from my parents to my younger brother.) Another thing I probably didn't know at the time: "Dreams" was sung by Stevie Nicks.

Now comes the strange part--strange, then somewhat plausible, at least in my view. The heroine of Star Wars was of course Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, who was only nineteen years old when filming began on Star Wars in March 1976--nineteen and completely convincing not only as a princess but also as an outer-space senator. Although she had been in movies before, Carrie Fisher became a household name with Star Wars. Millions mourned her death this past year. She was loved as few people in popular culture are truly loved. Stevie Nicks is also loved that way, by millions the world over. She who sang "Dreams" for us has, strangely enough, been named as a possible replacement for Carrie Fisher. This isn't just some lone fanboy's dream: it's actually a thing on the Internet. As soon as I heard about it, I thought That might actually work. Whereas some people seem to be saying that Stevie Nicks should just be a stand-in or a body double for Carrie Fisher, I think she could actually be Princess Leia. No one I can think of could fill the role, but Stevie is loved like Carrie was loved, and she has a similar stature, not just physically but also in pop-cultural terms. The pop culture of the 1970s is falling into pieces with age as all things do--sadly, neither Linda Ronstadt nor Steve Perry can sing anymore--but if you want to hold it up for at least a little longer, I say Why not? If she can act and if the deal can be swung, why shouldn't we have someone new in Stevie Nicks to play the forty-year-old part of Princess Leia? I realize that it's only a fantasy--a dream--to think that way, but what else is all of this but a dream and a fantasy?


So what does any of this have to do with Indiana and its artists? Well, as any Star Wars fan ought to know, Ralph McQuarrie (1929-2012), the conceptual artist behind the film and the franchise, was born in Gary, Indiana. He worked with director and screenwriter George Lucas as early as the spring of 1975, two years before the movie was released. He would go on to work on other films in the series. I would like to go beyond Ralph McQuarrie, though, and write about another Indiana artist who had nothing (or almost nothing) to do with Star Wars but by the turns of an eccentric idea can be caught in a discussion of the movie and its related phenomena.

A painting by Indiana illustrator Ralph McQuarrie for The Empire Strikes Back (1980). 

Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905, in South Bend, Indiana. A home-schooled prodigy, then a teenaged orphan, he moved to Chicago to live with his aunt around 1919 or so. Although he is now known as a poet and critic, Rexroth studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in his youth. I would be surprised to find that any of his artwork survives. On the other hand, maybe there are drawings by Kenneth Rexroth hiding among his papers, wherever they might be housed.

Rexroth had a varied career as a traveler, friend, husband, lover, critic, essayist, poet, author, translator, activist, and associate of many famous people, including Beat Poets and other literary figures in San Francisco. You can read about him on the Internet and in those ancient artifacts known as "books." I'll note only that Kenneth Rexroth died in Santa Barbara, California, on June 6, 1982, at age seventy-six.

"Dorothy," a portrait by Andrée Dutcher (1902-1940), first wife of Kenneth Rexroth. 

Now comes a part about which I'm not sure, followed by some thoughts that I hope will stand on their own, even if I'm wrong about this connection to Kenneth Rexroth. And here is that connection, if it really is a connection: a long time ago, I read that there are only two kinds of stories, namely, the Iliad and the Odyssey. I think the quote was attributed to Kenneth Rexroth, but I can't be sure. As happens too often, when you lose a quote, it's hard to find again, even in this age of the Internet. But I have kept that thought in my head and have applied it to the analysis of books and movies over the years. It seems to hold up pretty well. Boiled down even further, the idea is that every story is either of a conflict--the Iliad--or of a quest or journey--the Odyssey. I would like to look into that idea in relation to two high-powered, pop-cultural franchises.

The cover of Poetry Readings in the Cellar (Fantasy, 1958), a spoken-word record with Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I wrote that there is no connection between Rexroth and Star Wars. Well, that's if you stop too soon. If you don't stop too soon, you'll learn that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919) was friends with Erik Bauersfeld (1922-2016), voice of Admiral Ackbar and Bib Fortuna in the Star Wars movies.

Before Star Wars, there was Star Trek. Since the former came out in 1977, the two have lived side by side. One is fantasy. It appeals or is meant to appeal especially to children. The other is science fiction, though not always of the highest order. It appeals to children but also to adults, as the best entertainment of the 1960s and '70s did. I'm sure there is some overlap in the fandom associated with each, but the stereotype is that there are just two kinds of people: Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans. I'm not sure what these fans think of each other. If you fall back on stereotypes, you might say that Star Wars fans think that Star Trek is boring and that Star Trek fans think Star Wars is childish and one-dimensional. But those are stereotypes. Anyway, consider their titles: Star Wars. Star Trek. Take away the word Star and you're left with what? Wars--a conflict, the story told in the Iliad. Trek--a quest or journey, the story told in the Odyssey. There are wars in Star Trek and quests in Star Wars, but each is essentially of its own type. (With that in mind, might Princess Leia be Helen of Troy and the Millennium Falcon the Trojan Horse?) 

So just by their titles, these two franchises bear out the idea I have attributed here to Kenneth Rexroth. If there are only two kinds of stories, each must cover a lot of ground. The possibilities for storytelling would seem vast. However, there are limits in each. War eventually ceases. The journey finally reaches its end. Wars and journeys without end can only mean misery and despair. So what does that mean for a pop-cultural franchise? I saw part of the results in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). The moviemakers seem to have been recreating Star Wars for a new generation. That's fine. Star Wars is after all a story for children. Why shouldn't children now have the same chance we had--we four and millions more like us--in 1977 for an exciting fantasy of rushing from one star system to another towards a climactic battle against an evil empire?

But there's a crack in the Star Wars story. I say it as a fan, but there's a crack, for in Star Wars, there must always be an Empire and there must always be a Rebellion. The Star Wars universe is vast and the possibilities for storytelling are theoretically endless, but the main action in every movie is the same: Imperial forces against Rebels, Sith against Jedi, the Dark Side against the Force. Without that conflict, Star Wars may well amount to nothing. So the war goes on, movie after movie, decade after decade, all with variations on a simple theme: the Empire or its equivalent always builds a big, impenetrable fortress and the Rebels or their equivalents always penetrate it and destroy it, often with what is seemingly the most powerful weapon in the universe, the X-wing fighter. Maybe Star Wars: The Force Awakens recapitulated the original trilogy not so much for a new generation of moviegoers but because it's the only story that can be told in the Star Wars universe. And maybe Darth Vader returned in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) because of a further limitation: maybe only he makes a truly compelling villain and a suitable embodiment of the spirit of the Empire. One thing is for sure: he beats the heck out of his weak little tantrum-throwing emo grandson.

In Star Trek, on the other hand, there are always new horizons of outer space where no man has gone before. Storytelling in the Star Trek universe is far less limited than in the Star Wars universe if only because it isn't framed and delineated by war, which has, significantly, a classic narrative structure. There is always a Federation and the starships of the Federation, but beyond that, only the writer's imagination places bounds upon what stories might be told. Star Trek, as Kenneth Rexroth wrote of the Odyssey, "is a collection of adventures, of little melodramas." There are limitations even here, though. One is that in the Star Trek universe, there isn't the classic narrative structure as in a story of war. The story just goes on and on, with all parts being equal to all other parts. There isn't any growth or development in the characters. They simply live out their lives in stasis, returned at the beginning of each episode to where they were at the beginning of the last episode, despite anything that might have happened in between. Captain Kirk might have great adventures, but he doesn't grow. Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, might grow (in addition to being a story of conflict, Star Wars can be considered a Bildungsroman), but he can never have peace in a universe that must always be at war.

So which limitation is worse? I can't say. A better way might be to look at possibilities rather than limitations. Star Wars and Star Trek have both told great stories. When they have not told great stories, it hasn't been because of the limitations of their respective types. And I would say that neither franchise has reached the bounds of possibility. There are still more stories to tell, and it's nice to think that forty years from now there will still be excited children waiting in the dark, waiting for the words Space: the final frontier . . . or A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley
Happy 60th Wedding Anniversary to My Parents!

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