A confession. As a kid, I didn’t like Star Wars. You’d think I was in the ideal target market for it. I was 9 when Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, and I saw both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the theater. But for some reason it just didn’t appeal to me. I wasn’t into guns and swords, even if they were made out of lasers, and I found the plots impossible to follow.
As an adult I did eventually develop an appreciation for the original trilogy, however, and in particular I think The Empire Strikes Back is a genuinely great film. But overall, I still felt like they didn’t totally live up to the hype (especially Jedi with those godawful Ewoks).
And then the prequels happened. Lifelong fans of the series were as overjoyed before the prequels were released as they were infuriated after. Even as a kid who didn’t care at all about Star Wars, I remember getting swept up in eager musings on the playground as kids speculated about what the story before the story was all about. And then Lucas went and made the damn things.
The general consensus among Star Wars lovers was that the prequels sucked, and were nowhere near as good as the originals. But here’s the thing: as someone who didn’t religiously memorize every minute aspect of the original trilogy and embed it into the very fiber of my being from childhood, I didn’t really think the prequels were that much worse than the originals. They still had inscrutible plots, hackneyed dialogue, and lots of lasers and weird sound effects. I won’t quibble at all with the hardcore fans over George Lucas and his abominable, incessant tampering with the originals. But I will stand by my argument that the prequels are not that much worse than the originals because, really the originals weren’t that great to begin with.
Band geeks are like regular geeks
Anyone who was a band geek in the ’80s or ’90s (or, presumably, still today) will recognize the name David Holsinger. He’s one of the most famous and prolific living composers of music for band/symphonic winds/wind orchestra/whatever you want to call it. But outside of this arcane world he is largely unknown, as he rarely (if ever) writes for string orchestra, which is apparently where all of the “serious” composers dwell. Whatever the case, his technically demanding compositions are a staple among the more skilled high school and college wind ensembles, and he is revered by band geeks in much the way George Lucas is revered by regular geeks.
For years, Holsinger’s most highly regarded piece of music was called “The Death Tree,” which he composed in 1986 and originally envisioned as the second movement in his three-part Easter Symphony. The only problem was, much like Lucas and the legendary Star Wars prequels, he never wrote it. As with Star Wars, the untold story took on mythical status, and fans of his work built up impossible expectations for its excellence, should it ever come to exist.
My college band director was one such enthusiast, and while I was a student he commissioned Holsinger to finish The Easter Symphony. I was a junior, first chair clarinet at the time, and it was unbelievably exciting to be a part of something so awesome. David Holsinger traveled to work with us directly on the piece frequently during the year leading up to its premiere. I even got to pick him up at the airport on one of his visits, took him to Wendy’s (his choice) for lunch, and picked his brain on the hour-long drive to our small-town campus. He conducted the first public performance himself. In fact, if you can get your hands on a CD of that premiere, you can even hear my own indelible mark on the recording, as I utterly destroyed the final note of “The Death Tree” on an impossible-to-tune E-flat clarinet. (If you’re not familiar, the E-flat clarinet is to the regular B-flat clarinet as the piccolo is to the flute. And just as impossible to play in tune.)
I had never played (nor even heard) “The Death Tree” prior to our first rehearsals for The Easter Symphony. I was well familiar with Holsinger’s work, of course, but this particular piece had been too challenging for my high school band. So I approached “The Death Tree” with virgin ears, rather than with the cherished nostalgia some others had for it, much like how I came to like Star Wars as an adult. I liked it, but I hadn’t embraced the legend.
When the first partial scores for the first and third movements of The Easter Symphony began arriving in our rehearsal room in Minnesota, laser printed and mailed directly from the composer in Texas, there were various grumbles of disappointment. I enjoyed it all equally, but others complained that the new movements were nowhere near as good as “The Death Tree.” The legend had been built up out of all proportion, and it was simply impossible for David Holsinger (or anyone) to deliver a piece of music as mind-blowing as people were demanding. It’s not that The Easter Symphony wasn’t good. People’s expectations were unreasonable.
Just a cookie
On a recent episode of NBC’s comedy The Office, Robert California (James Spader), the intimidating new CEO of Dunder Mifflin’s parent company, is sitting in the conference room with the Dunder Mifflin employees, leading a brainstorming session to figure out ways to increase the company’s profitability. After a number of lackluster ideas from the usual suspects — Ryan (B.J. Novak) especially, in a classic moment of self-absorbed douchebaggery — the affable oaf Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) raises a complaint about the snack vending machine in the breakroom. The comment could be taken at face value, or it could, as Robert California takes it, be a metaphor for a profound insight into improving Dunder Mifflin’s core business.
Robert California ends up spending the entire day with Kevin, listening to and attempting to decipher Kevin’s cryptic food analogies, until, ultimately, he realizes that Kevin was really just talking about cookies the whole time. No deeper insight, no profound meaning. The Kevin he thought he was spending the day with never really existed.
Where was the failure here? In Kevin, for not living up to unreasonable expectations? Or in Robert California, for having unreasonable expectations in the first place?
I’m not saying that George Lucas and David Holsinger are like Kevin. But I am saying that maybe we’re all a bit too much like Robert California.
Answer: They’re all just cookies.