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Making Wookie

The MFA explores the fine arts of marketing and merchandising with its Star Wars exhibit

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… the brave Jedi master Yoda had his flesh viciously torn asunder. Well, okay, it actually happened at the corner of Bissonnet and Main Street, in the Museum of Fine Arts' official "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" gift shop. "See that Yoda doll? Some kid tried to dissect his eye," recalls a store employee. An overly inquisitive young fan had ripped open the rubbery skin of Yoda's eyelid to reveal the rotating plastic eye mechanism. In between unsupervised children's light saber battles, the gift shop has been doing a brisk business, about $14,000 a week, according to store manager Brad McCranie, who travels with the exhibition to all the venues. He reveals the top-selling items:

No. 1: Pez dispensers with Star Wars characters ("They're collectible, you know. We can go through 200 to 300 on a Saturday.")

No. 2: Assorted Star Warspostcards

Costumes, costumes and more costumes: They're the first things we think of when someone mentions Star Wars.
Lucasfilm Ltd.
Costumes, costumes and more costumes: They're the first things we think of when someone mentions Star Wars.
Costumes, costumes and more costumes: They're the first things we think of when someone mentions Star Wars.
Lucasfilm Ltd.
Costumes, costumes and more costumes: They're the first things we think of when someone mentions Star Wars.

No. 3: "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" exhibition catalogs

No. 4: Light sabers

No. 5: Action figures

Not included on the list are classics like "Darth Maul's Sith Infiltrator Universal Remote," or my favorite, the head of Yoda plastic key chain/coin purse. Tables are stacked high with catalogs and a range of Star Wars-related books, such as the Star Wars Essential Guide to Alien Species. "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" is, not coincidentally, sponsored by Bantam, which publishes the Star Wars series of books. Bantam or some other Random House subsidiary seems to publish about everything else on sale. Tucked discreetly amid all the sci-fi foofaraw are a pair of weighty volumes, The Power of Myth and The Hero of a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, whose writings on the "heroic journey" provide the scholarly rationale for the whole exhibition.

The premise behind the show is that, ostensibly, Star Wars taps into some universal mythic and psychic constructs, that Luke Skywalker's search for self and battle against evil are metaphors for our own lives. Campbell's tendency to overemphasize our commonalities aside, you could argue that Lucas's writing is more a case of hackneyed story line than deep-seated universality. The motivating factor of this exhibition is the commercial appeal of the Star Wars series. It attracted more than a million people into the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The primary aim of "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" is to bring bodies, and consequently revenue, into the museum, at ten bucks a head.

It certainly has done that. It has also lured folks into the MFA who would have never stepped foot into it otherwise. Exposing people to the museum is a good thing; making money for the institution is a good thing. But you kind of wish the show were a little less like a visit to Universal Studios.

The catalog seeks to relate Star Wars to themes and symbols from ancient mythology, but it would have been nice if the exhibition itself explored these ideas with more than just movie props. Janet Landay makes such an attempt with The Journey Continues, a self-guided tour through works in the MFA's permanent collection that echo the archetypal themes in Star Wars. The slim brochure halfheartedly tries to lure visitors into the upstairs galleries by making comparisons between the good luck charm given to Anakin Skywalker and the coral pendant worn by the Christ child in a Renaissance painting.

Walking into the show, you are greeted by a model of the Imperial Star Destroyer and a giant Star Wars logo, which is complemented by cheesy large-scale illustrated montages of the characters. You feel like you're in the lobby of a 108-screen multiplex. Emblazoned across one of the posters is a gaggingly high-minded statement from George Lucas about how all he wants is to interest young people in space exploration. Is that where Darth Maul's Sith Infiltrator Universal Remote comes in?

Next are costumes, costumes and more costumes. High-minded mythology aside, the Star Warsseries has always been about jaw-dropping special effects; static costumes just don't cut it. The first thing you notice is the charming crudeness of the early costumes from the first film, released in 1977. They are all kind of worse for the wear, like Halloween costumes that have been rented once too often. They weren't treated as artifacts before the Lucas team became self- consciously aware of their own greatness. Princess Leia's white polyester robe is grubby, and the Imperial Storm Trooper's white plastic armor is scratched all to hell.

The catalog, wall text and audio tour (intoned by a rumbling James Earl Jones) provide information about the costumes. Did you know the Imperial Guard's costumes were influenced by -- gasp! -- fascist uniforms to convey a sense of evil? Come on, every-freakin'-body rips off the Nazis for evil wardrobe. Think of all those James Bond villains and the Third Reich sartorial stylings of their private armies. Wow, wonder where Lucas got the term "stormtroopers"? The only really striking costume is that of the Imperial Body Guard, with a long draped red velvet robe and a similarly draped red plastic helmet.

The mannequins start getting on your nerves by the third display case. Come to think of it, the display cases are irritating, too. In an attempt to create neutral, unobtrusive figures, organizers have painted the mannequins' exposed limbs black and have obscured their features with what appears to be black panty hose over their heads. It looks like Leia, Luke and Han are going to knock off a Stop N Go. The glass cases have a mall-ish feel to them, a hint of commercialism exacerbated by the fact that they're emblazoned with etched Star Wars logos.

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