Store Wars: 40 Years of Star Wars Merchandise

fullsizeoutput_13b3Earlier this month I paid a visit to the Museum of the 20th Century in Hoorn. Seven years living in the Netherlands wasn’t enough to get me there, but my current research on Star Wars marketing—and the opportunity to gawk at some retro toys—finally made the trip worth my while. From 19 November 2016 through 29 October 2017, the museum is hosting a special exhibition called ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’, focused specifically on the Star Wars franchise.

In a number of different ways, the Museum of the 20th Century feels like a place out of time—making it especially fitting, I suppose, to host merchandise from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It’s built in a former prison, which itself is located at the edge of a peninsula on the far side of town. I arrived in Hoorn on a Sunday, when Dutch villages tend to be at their emptiest, and was also one of the first people into the museum when it opened at noon. The Star Wars exhibition was clearly the main attraction, advertised on numerous posters and banners in the walk up to the museum, and it was the first exhibit immediately visible once you made it past the ticket office. Ever the contrarian, however, I decided to take a look at the permanent exhibit upstairs before taking the more obvious route.

The museum has an imposing silhouette.
The museum has an imposing silhouette.

Essentially, the first section Museum of the 20th Century consists of a series of cordoned-off living and bedroom spaces, each decorated in the style of a different decade. Comically, most of the visitors to the museum seemed to have lived in similar spaces themselves, and much of the conversation I overheard involved one person pointing out a particular object of childhood nostalgia to another person. This portion of the museum gave way to an entire indoor village, with shop windows displaying retro products, and finally to ‘communications technology’, ‘toys’, and ‘home electronics’ sections that simply display a range of products next to each other, in chronological order.  Here I discovered some particularly horrifying devices that my own childhood in the ’90s didn’t include (1980s: did you actually ever use the electric meat-carving knife?). Overall it was a strange experience, in some ways out of time, but also very much defined by a present-day outlook on the recent past.

On the top floor of the museum I also stumbled across the first room of the Star Wars exhibition, devoted to all the franchise’s collaborations with the LEGO company. In large glass cases the museum had set up assembled versions of seemingly every single Star Wars LEGO set released since 1999. In the centre of the room were several full tubs of generic LEGO that visitors could use to make their own museum pieces. The room’s only other occupants—two children, a boy and a girl—raced each other from exhibit to exhibit to name all of the characters, ships, and locations from the Star Wars universe. Although I happen to be an amateur LEGO Star Wars collector myself, I was more interested in the older toys and merchandise, so I made my way downstairs to check out the exhibition proper.

‘Store Wars’ filled two large rooms in the museum, both decorated with life-size models clearly made by the locals, and illuminated by a dazzling, colour-shifting array of strobe lights that made me feel like I actually was back in the ’80s. Over the speakers, Star Wars theme music, lines from the films, and the audio from various advertising campaigns played continuously but unobtrusively—just enough to get me into the spirit of the exhibition. The first room was largely dominated by a low case full of the complete line of (unboxed!) Kenner action figures, originally sold between 1978 and 1985. The rest of the room was devoted to the original trilogy, and its first memorabilia. In addition to the Kenner figures, the walls were lined with some of the other early merchandise, including soap cakes, model X-Wings, and a few great examples of early Dutch-language boxes and advertising. Just off this room was a homemade replica of the Millennium Falcon bridge, with video from various Star Wars flight simulator games playing through the viewscreens.

The second room followed Star Wars merchandising into the late 1980s, and through the release of the prequel trilogy at the turn of the millennium. Highlights included Darth Vader roller skates, Chewbacca high-tops, and a few famous signatures. There were also a number of life-size figures that demanded a selfie or two—some because they were so iconic, others because they fell a bit short of the mark. Towards the end of the room I took the opportunity to see how I measured up, literally, to some of the major characters in the films, using a Star Wars height chart pasted on the wall, and the very end of the exhibition featured a children’s play area with a selection of Star Wars costumes and props to try on. Overall the exhibition had a good mix of things to look at, but also things to interact with, making it a brief but entertaining experience for the child in everyone.

There was very little from the two most recent Star Wars films (understandable given when this exhibition must have been planned and set up), but the cinema adjacent to the museum was advertising Rogue One premiere screenings, and it seemed like members of the Dutch branch of the 501st Legion—an international fan organisation—were going to be in attendance. The Dutch 501st was also present for the ‘Store Wars’ exhibition’s grand opening. The exhibition also seemed to pitch itself to male Star Wars fans. Most of the children’s costumes at the end of the exhibition were of male-coded characters, and the child’s bedroom exhibition that was part of the second room was labelled ‘A boy’s room from around 1980’. Like the franchise itself, though, it certainly wasn’t gender exclusive: while I was there I saw men and women, boys and girls pass through in equal numbers.

My only real complaint was in the gift shop, which had a range of Star Wars merchandise (mostly LEGO), but very little for the visitor on a budget. I would happily have bought some postcards, a magnet, patch, or pin, but the €40 BB-8 bomber jacket, though fabulous, was a bit above my current means. Ironic for an exhibition on a franchise that literally had a product in every market and price range, but perhaps understandable for a small museum in Hoorn.

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I would have bought this bumper sticker in a heartbeat

The verdict? ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’ is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. It may be small, but it was clearly assembled with love, and is packed to the rafters with Star Wars memorabilia. Be sure to bring a native along for the ride, though—all the plaques are in Dutch!

 

Earthling Cinema: Movies After the Apocalypse

Meet Garyx Wormuloid.
Meet Garyx Wormuloid.

I’ve got apocalypse on the brain this week (possibly because my subconscious is desperate to latch on to anything besides my current thesis chapter), and have also been scouring the internet for teaching aids. The Green brothers have predictably been a highly entertaining source of material, but this week the winning discovery was the YouTube channel Wisecrack. You may know Wisecrack from such gems as ThugNotes, 8-Bit Philosophy, and Pop-Psych!, but my favourite so far is definitely their film criticism series, called Earthling Cinema.

Earthling Cinema, which reminds me pleasantly of the long-cancelled TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, is not only educational and highly humorous (at least if you’re me) – it is also post-apocalyptic. In this show, Garyx Wormuloid, a heavily-eyebrowed alien played by Mark Schroeder, explains and analyses relics from a future where planet Earth is no more.

The camp and general silliness of both the sets and the premise is part of this series’ charm. As you can see from this instalment on The LEGO Movie (2014), Earthling Cinema’s retrospective look at contemporary culture and media trends also offers many delightfully sarcastic moments:

Each video is around five minutes long, and includes all the things you might expect from a post-apocalyptic educational programme. Names are intentionally mispronounced, and historical texts and details deliberately fudged. The DVD copies of the films discussed in the videos are displayed behind glass like museum pieces, and are suitably charred and aged.

Apart from the many fun, and sometimes cryptic, little touches (like the ‘Censored’ bars over people’s mouths whenever they eat on-screen), this series of videos is an enjoyable reminder of why, after my graduate degree in the humanities, I can no longer watch films uncynically. It is also a great reminder of why I don’t really mind that too much – and, above all, it’s a great exercise in alienation. What will future civilisations think of us, and of our culture?

I strongly suggest you head over to YouTube and check this series out in more detail. If you’re looking for a place to start, I can recommend these videos on The Lion King (a.k.a. Hamlet with animals; 1994) and The Hunger Games (2012):

Happy viewing, earthlings!

‘Everything is Awesome’ is the Anthem of Our Age

So the Oscars were on over the weekend. And although The LEGO Movie may have been snubbed in the nominations for Best Animated Feature, it was very present in the evening’s rendition of ‘Everything is Awesome’, which included Oscar statuettes made out of LEGO blocks and a heavy metal interlude by Will Arnett (as Batman):

‘Everything is Awesome’ feels like the weird theme song of our times. Take this excerpt, rapped by SNL’s The Lonely Island:

Life is good, ‘cause everything’s awesome!

Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity—

more free time for my awesome community!

Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes:

It’s awesome to win, it’s awesome to lose!

Blue skies, bouncy springs, we just named

two awesome things!

A Nobel Prize, a piece of string,

you know what’s awesome? Everything!

Everything you see, think, or say is awesome!

Are they serious about handling adversity so positively? Maybe, maybe not. But in the wake of things like the credit crisis, the rapidly dwindling job market, and armed conflicts in Palestine, Syria, and Paris, these words feel at once ridiculous and right. What else can we do but handle the challenges thrown at us as best we can? Over on Vulture, LEGO Movie star Chris Pratt also weighed in on the song’s relevance to our contemporary world:

I think it follows the theme of this movie, which you think is just some Lego movie made to sell toys – and it’s actually a really subversive, interesting, thought-provoking commentary on society […] The song itself represents that, because it’s saying that everything is awesome, but it’s the anthem of this strange world that exists halfway between America and North Korea, you know what I mean? Twenty or 30 years from now, I think people will look back at ‘Everything Is Awesome’ and it’ll be more than just a cool pop song. It’s really reflective of where we are right now, and that’s what art is all about.

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‘Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.’

 

While it may seem strange to some that Pratt refers to a song from a children’s film as art, he’s put his finger on something that resonates with a lot of the theories on popular art in which I’m currently immersed. One thing I’m especially into at this moment is called metamodernism. Recently a lot of people have been speculating that postmodernism has run its course, and that something new is taking shape. What is this something, you ask? I’ll let Luke Turner explain:

[R]ather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.

Basically, modernism places us in a world that, ontologically speaking, may no longer exist, and postmodernism’s relentless deconstruction makes it epistemologically difficult to move forward. Metamodernist art (and criticism) lets us have our cake and eat it too, in ‘a kind of informed naivety’. It believes in a world that it logically knows will never come to be.

Bo Bartlett, School of the Americas, 2010, oil on board, 76 x76.”
Bo Bartlett, School of the Americas, 2010, oil on board. Originally 76 x76.” Click through for an article on metamodern art.

So what does this have to do with ‘Everything is Awesome’ and The LEGO Movie? More than you would think. Seth Abramson’s got a great article from almost exactly a year ago on how The LEGO Movie represents ‘the first unabashedly metamodern children’s film in Hollywood history’. Specifically, he talks about the simultaneously ironic and sincere impulse behind the song that swept the Oscars last weekend:

In the pre-metamodern world, these lyrics would be immediately (and rightly) received as ironic. These days, not so much. In fact, it’s impossible to tell whether the exuberance behind the song above is real or feigned, as it’s simultaneously the anthem for a repressive totalitarian state run by Lord Business and an unbearably catchy, optimistic tune the high-spirited Emmet continues to enjoy even after its sinister intentions are revealed.

Though it’s a lot to wrap your head around in practice, this pairing and blurring of the ‘real’ and the ‘feigned’ are everywhere in contemporary art. Appropriately, in a blog post over on Notes on Metamodernism, Kyle Karthauser explores the notion of ‘the awesome’ as the metamodern equivalent of the sublime:

Etymologically it gestures at the sublime through “awe,” an experience that mingles abject fear and profound ecstasy. In today’s vernacular, it denotes delight (“Hall & Oates is coming to the state fair? That’s awesome!”) And while the everyday use of “awesome” may be used to describe mundane, not-terribly-profound things, in the broadening of its definition it forces us to broaden our aesthetic understanding of the space between the sublime and the beautiful. From a classical or postmodern standpoint, there is no space between the two, and absolutely no overlap.

The entire post is well worth a read, even if you only skip through to Karthauser’s analysis of Evel Knievel as an emblem of the awesome. There’s also an interesting look at the opacity or surface-heavy quality of  the metamodern era, and the moments of revelation an encounter with these surfaces can produce:

After 30+ years of the postmodern paradigm, an experience of this sort is genuinely mind-boggling. When the dominant critical practice is that of dissolving texts into various discourses, of tracing allusions, sniffing out irony, and contemplating the terminally arbitrary nature of signification itself, you aren’t prepared for Evel Knievel. You aren’t prepared for the Star Wars Kid. When someone tattoos this permanently onto their body, your belief in irony as the be-all-end-all of enlightened cultural expression has to be shaken.

These experiences certainly don’t negate our cultural and political obligations to be informed in the long term, but they do allow us a few precious moments of naivety. They give us a break from the numbing cynicism that might otherwise threaten to overwhelm and immobilise us. Especially given the vast inundation of often-negative information with which we are continually bombarded.

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This guy is a pretty perfect example of ‘the awesome’ at work.

 

‘Everything is Awesome’ (and The LEGO Movie in general) hit a nerve in our culture because it’s simultaneously so simple and so over the top. You can read it on a number of levels – deeply and superficially, ironically and sincerely – and all of those readings would be correct. Is everything awesome? Probably not. But if we behave as though it is, we may well achieve something meaningful through that informed naivety. And we might actually enjoy ourselves in the process.

Embrace your metamodern side and listen to ‘Everything is Awesome’ here. And maybe also watch this video of hamsters eating tiny burritos.