Common Culture vs Hegemony

Back in summer I found myself in the lucky position of being able to present the SABR Baseball Card Committee’s Burdick Award to Jim Beckett. This wasn’t just in my capacity as co-chair either. As a member of the Beckett generation of card collectors, I was a good choice to not only introduce him but also thank him for creating a common culture which continues to bring a generation of card collectors together.

I haven’t found any better way to explain the role that baseball cards had to my generation than to mention how my Junior High had a baseball card club. In my introduction I got a few gasps when I said I had never purchased a Beckett but in many ways it’s the greatest compliment to how successful and important they were. I never needed to purchase one since they were always around. At the club. At a friend’s house. In a classmate’s backpack. I’m pretty sure I read very one of them for a few years.

That level of shared culture and how I’ve found it from my entire generation of collectors on Twitter is super cool and I absolutely mean it when I say that Beckett was a huge positive force on my childhood and my memories of childhood.

At the same time, Beckett is also a huge part of why I burned out and gave up on the hobby. No, I didn’t mention this part in the presentation but it’s 100% true. As much as I remember Beckett with absolute fondness which evokes a wonderful period of my childhood, I also remember it as the authority about the “correct” way to collect which drove me away from the hobby.

There’s something entirely appropriate about the 1980s setting up a price guide to become the cultural zeitgeist but the increasing focus on “investing” and rookie cards was tiresome then and is tiresome now.* Yes it’s fun to share interests. But when everyone wants the same cards because everyone else wants those cards things get pretty boring pretty fast.

*Beckett’s homage to the 1980s was fun but also missed everything I loved about those cards.

It’s a fine line between a shared common culture and a hegemony.

Do I love collecting cards? Absolutely. But I want to do it my way. Put together collections I’m interested in. Value them for what they are not for what someone else will pay me for them. And show those collections to other collectors. One of my favorite things is seeing the weird and wonderful collections people put together and hearing why those collections are the way they are and what they man to he people who collect them. That’s where the common culture is for me.

It’s not arguing over the definition of  a rookie card. Trying to collect the same hot players as everyone else. Or focusing on how much something is going to be worth next week or next month.

This applies to so much more than cards as I’ve seen it with watching movies or taking photos where things slip across the line from being something that’s fun to do for yourself and share with others to become something where there are rules and a wrong way of doing things.

A lot of this is definitely bad actors on the internet but I also get the feeling that much of my generation grew up being told what was good, what to like, and how those two walk hand-in-hand. Not inherently awful as long as you learn at some point that it’s okay to like things that are bad or unpopular and it’s just as okay to not like things that are good or popular.

Sadly, a lot of us have been unable to grow out of that education and, whether it’s seeking the comfort of liking things that everyone else likes or feeling threatened when someone critiques something that everyone is supposed to like, manage to turn a lot of the stuff that should be fun and sharable into an activity in groupthink.

I love seeing takes on things that force me to reconsider my opinions. I love discovering stuff because someone else is so passionate about it that it inspires me to learn more about it as well. These are all much more exciting ways to enjoy hobbies than receiving a list of rules about what I’m supposed to do and what’s supposed to be good.

1934 Garbaty Moderne Schonheitsgalerie

Sometimes you see something so cool you can’t help but buy them. As I’ve gone a bit down the Hollywood rabbit hole, I’ve found a lot of other poeple on card twitter are in the same boat as me. While we all are interested in baseball cards, there’s a similar allure to classic Hollywood.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Baseball fans are nostalgic traditionalists who enjoy comparing athletes from a century ago to current players and believe that learning about the game should include a hefty dose of learning about the history of the game. So of course we treat other forms of entertainment the same way. Movies, like baseball, are one of those American™ things which comes with a ton of cultural history.

Anyway as I’ve was showing off my Hollywood cards, one of the guys on card twitter responded by showing off his collection of Garbaty cards.

Holy crap.

Garbaty is a German Cigarette manufacturer who, from 1934 to 1937, released three amazingly beautiful sets of cards. The sets all have the same look of lushly printed photos of actresses and other famous women of the 1930s but what really distinguishes them are the borders and extensive use of gold ink.

Anyway I was smitten and while I said I was basically done with pre-war Hollywood cards I occasionally type “garbaty” into my eBay searches just in case something stupidly affordable pops up. A month ago I got lucky and found a lot of a couple dozen of them for roughly a buck a card. I haven’t been so excited about an eBay purchase/shipment in a long time.

One of the problems with the Garbaty cards is that a lot of the actresses are not names we know anymore so it’s possible that a lot can be a bunch of “commons” of the same actress. This wouldn’t have been a huge deterrent at the price I was looking at but when I saw these two cards in the preview I knew I had to act fast.

When it comes to 1930s film stars there aren’t many bigger names than Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. The Dietrich in particular is all kinds of amazing between the portrait and the lush border. I’m not sure any of the other cards in the set can look better than this one.

All the cards I got are from Garbaty’s first release of 300 cards in 1934. These all have backs that define the set as Moderne Schonheitsgalerie (Modern Beauty Gallery) and it’s clear that Garbaty drew from all around the world for its checklist.

It’s a lot of fun to have a Lupe Velez card to represent a certain amount of non-European (plus United States) diversity* plus I enjoy having reminders of how vibrant Mexico’s film industry was during this time.

*While I don’t plan on getting more Garbatys I can see myself being tempted by Anna May Wong or Dolores Del Rio for similar reasons.

The highlight here though is the 16-year-old Rita Hayworth featuring her original name. She looked familiar and the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place who she was for a long time. Her being in this batch means that three of Madonna’s Vogue name checks were in there.

Two more. No star power this time (though Lil Dagover was apparently one of Hitler’s favorites) but I’m including these to give a sense for how varied and wonderful the borders of this set are. I only scanned half of the lot for this post but besides the Garbo and Dietrich, the others all have distinct border designs. Some are gold-focused. Others are colorful with gold accents. They look fantastic together in a 12-pocket page.

A handful of the cards feature pairs of stars. Many of these are in horizontal orientation so as to better frame the couple. The Garbo card pairing her with John Gilbert is a still from Queen Christina. A Garbo/Gilbert card is highly appropriate given how their supposed romance was a big deal for movie fans at the time.

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford meanwhile are a fantastic pair who appeared together in eight movies and also supposedly had some romance as well. Each actor represents 1930s Hollywood stardom by themselves but together they’re even more iconic. This appears to be a still from Chained and doubles as an example of why everyone used to smoke so much.

The Garbaty set has multiple cards per actress. Most of my batch was distinct names but there were a bunch of Brigitte Helm cards. I’ve only selected four of them here. I love how different each card is from the others. Different border. Different pose. Different hair. Even if it’s the same women these look very nice together on a page.

I’m glad that I have multiples of her too. She’s not a household name but she has one iconic role—in many ways the most iconic role of any of the actresses in the batch. Helm is famous for playing both Maria and the Maschinenmensch in Metropolis. She’s pictured here basically at the end of her career since she gave up films and fled the Nazis right around 1934.

Am I searching for more of these or looking to complete a set? God no. But my oh my do I like looking at them in the album.

Grey Areas (and Mission Creep part 2)

While I’m writing about mission creep I may as well cover my Stanford Project and how it’s creeping into never-ending project territory. This isn’t an explicit expansion of the scope of the project—it remains focused on Stanford alumni who played in the Majors—but rather a reflection of how much grey the borders have and how I’m pushing into that greyness.

I’ve mentioned some of this before. Bobby Brown and Bill Wakefield are both examples of how even something as tightly-defined as my base project description has some grey. Bobby Brown didn’t graduate from Stanford but did play for the baseball team. Bill Wakefield meanwhile is the opposite. He graduated from Stanford but went pro before he could play for the team.

I initially ruled Brown out but I’ve come to accept that I should be more inclusive in general with my binder. Something tightly is nice but I found myself enjoying the random out-of-spec cards that I had also included.

Minor league cards of guys who played in the majors but never got major league cards are less of a grey area but one which pushed me out of my Major League cards only initial concept. I felt it was better to be inclusive here as well and enjoyed the resulting variety.

This of course pushed me into finding assorted cheap signed cards of alumni who didn’t make it to the majors. I’m probably also on the look out for minor league cards of these guys as well now. Not in the sense of have to get them but it’s cards like these that give a bit of variety to the binder and remind me of players I watched when I was kid.

This also meant that I started to look into cards of baseball players who went on to play football and never got a baseball card. With these cards I’ve tried to get cards that mention their baseball playing on the backs. I’m also happy just getting a card to two of each player rather than mapping a career.

Nevers is an interesting case in this group since he does have some baseball cards (I actually have his Conlon card) but they’re mostly unattainable Zeenuts. And his only vintage football card is one that’s out of my price range but it’s one I like since it shows him with Stanford.

There are also cards of non-baseball alumni that show up in baseball sets. This is mostly an Allen & Ginter phenomenon but the Tom Watson First Pitch insert shows that things aren’t limited to that. I don’t feel the need to get both regular or mini versions here, it’s really just a function of what I find.

I do however like this sort of organic creep. These are all technically baseball cards still, just not of baseball players. (Yes Jessica Mendoza counts as baseball now due to her stint as an advisor for the Mets). I don’t claim to have everyone in Ginter either since I haven’t gone over the whole checklist or insert sets with a fine toothed comb.

The Ginter cards also take us into Olympian territory. While I don’t feel any desire to get cards of players in the NBA or NFL, I do find myself liking the cards of Stanford Olympians.

Stanford’s rich Olympics history has been especially fun to research since Guys like Pete Desjardins show up in sets from the 1930s and Bob Mathias is in sets from the 1950s. While there are a lot of 1980s and 1990s Olympic history sets, it’s great to be able to throw some old cards into the binder too.

In the old card theme, sometimes I just can’t pass one up. I love Exhibits so Jack Palance was an obvious addition. There have been a bunch of Presidents sets but I like this 1956 Topps Herbert Hoover as one of the earlier ones.

And the Sportscaster Hank Luisetti was a nice solution to the “what Sportscaster should I get” question I was stuck on. With an old or weird set, finding something that fits in the grey area of my collection interests is how I choose my example card.

With more-modern weird sets, this sometimes manifests itself as a “what the hell I’m already doing this project” acquisition. Again, not something I actively seek out but fun to grab as I come across them. The non-sports ones are ones I’m more likely to grab too since they represent an interesting category of people who I don’t always expect to find on trading cards.

And finally there are the regular sports cards that I’ve just come across. Some of these have shown up in trade packages. Others just in piles of cards I’ve had access to. Again not anything I’m searching for or intentionally expanding the scope of the project to include. But they’re all fun additions which make the binder more interesting.

Hollywood Exhibits

So it appears that my “look what I’ve bought” posts are going to be most of my non-baseball, preferably non-sport, pre-war and vintage acquisitions. I’ve previously mentioned a set of 1930s Hollywood tobacco cards, this time I found a nice batch of of close to thirty 1940s Exhibit cards and couldn’t resist pulling the trigger.

Exhibit/arcade cards have become one of my favorite things. Nice big collectible photos and they’re usually in decent shape with the main wear and tear coming from being displayed. I try to limit my baseball acquisitions to just Giants but one of the wonderful things about Exhibits is that they cover all kinds of subjects and directly connect to the world of Cartes de Visite and Cabinet Cards with how the cards aren’t part of any formal set and are really just meant to circulate and be collected among fans.

Exhibits aren’t ordered or sold by the subject, but they also feel like a distinct product from early baseball cards. This is partly because they’re sold as photos from vending machines rather than being packaged with something else. The product is 100% about photography and how it circulates.

I’m not going to scan and post all the cards but this is a flavor of what I got and why I pulled the trigger. We’re getting into Golden Age stars and some of the cards in the batch as as big a name as you could hope to have—to the point where I don’t have to identify any of these four actors.

Also in the batch are stars like Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, and Jimmy Stewart as well as a number of other recognizable names like Dana Andrews, Alan Ladd, and Roddy McDowell. The only complaint I have about the batch is that aside from Judy Garland, the only other woman who’s even a semi-recognizable name was Mary Martin.

Still, lots of fun to have and look through and it makes my non-sport binder that much better.

I also got to go on a Wikipedia dive for all the names I didn’t recognize. While that could be a post in and of its own, I’ve decided to go a different route since a bunch of the cards turned out to be baseball related. Yup. I’ve got myself a toehold into a baseball card post as well.

We’ll start with these two Hall of Famers. My kids know Jimmy Stewart and Judy Garland but I think they may have gotten introduced to Abbott and Costello first. When my eldest was in first grade he came home from school one day and asked me if I knew what a question word was.

“Dada what’s a question word?”


“Dada what’s a question word!”


“We learned about them in school! Dad What’s a Question Word!”


By this point he was about to start punching something and my wife couldn’t hold her laughter back. So he got introduced to the routine and he and his younger brother tried their best to memorize it and repeat it in the back seat of the car for the following two years.

Another baseball-related card is this one of Laraine Day. The boys enjoy sports movies, particularly sports biopics, right now and 42 is one of their favorites. The first time we watched it I had no idea about Leo Durocher and Laraine Day. But we’ve watched it a couple times since and the most-recent viewing came after I got this batch of Exhibits.

During that viewing I realized I had received a Day card in there. While she’s not a big name, I was particularly pleased to confirm that I had her card. It’s nice when my interests overlap in unexpected ways.

John Player & Sons Film Stars

I don’t usually post “look what I got” posts but I have a feeling that my forays into pre-war issues will be the exception to this rule. There are tons of pre-war cards sets out there covering all kinds of subject matter. In many ways each checklist is a cool and interesting example of the kinds of things that were deemed collectable and represent a snapshot of popular culture of some sort at the time. Now though a lot of that stuff is only interesting for what it says about the past and doesn’t hold much of any current cultural interest.

Those sets though that do retain cultural interest though are super cool and hard to resist when I encounter them at a decent price. For example:

Yeah. I just got a set of John Player and Sons Player’s Cigarettes Film Stars. This is the 1938 Third Series. I love this design with the painted portraits and facsimile autographs.  And the checklist is wonderful with a bunch of 1930s film stars who capture that late-30s era when 3-strip Technicolor and the end of the depression gave us a number of films that still make up our visual literacy.

Being a 1938 set puts this release after Adventures of Robin Hood but before Gone with the Wind. The three Robin Hood stars—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone—are highlights of this set for me. Robin Hood is one of the first classic films I watched on the big screen at the Stanford Theatre when I was a kid and it’s one I’ve already made sure to show my kids as well.

The backs are also interesting. I enjoy seeing what studios people are with (and who’s without a studio). The bios are pretty bland but frequently include birth names vs Hollywood names. It’s also nice to see real birthdates and, for many of the actors, heights and weights.

Anyway supercool. Superfun to look through and read. I’m very happy to have these in my collection and will enjoy looking at them again and again.


One of the baseball card tweeps who I talk with a lot is @junkwaxtwins. He’s a Minnesota fan living in Texas who’s especially interested in miscuts and printing errors. I sent him a small package of miscuts and Minnesota oddballs a while ago and I just received a small package from him as part of his celebration about hitting the 2000 followers mark on Twitter.

This package consisted of two parts. Part one was for me.

Highlights here are the wonderful combination of a Donruss Elite card with a Sportflics card. And also Bo Jackson as an Angel. My brain can’t grok that at all.

Donruss Elite was one of the first major chase cards in the hobby. Yes we had things like the Griffey Jr Upper Deck Rookie or the Billy Ripken error, but the idea of inserting a special, super-hard-to-find card was somewhat novel. We’d had the 1990 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson signatures the previous year but that was in packs that most of us kids couldn’t really afford. 1991 Donruss though? Totally affordable.

Still, I’ve never seen an Elite card before. Given what the hobby would turn into this is a wonderfully plain and simple card. No fancy card stock, just foil stamping and number out of 10,000.* It’s a very fun reminder of a simpler time.

*With the focus on 1:1 to 1:250 on chase cards to day this is a laughably huge run.

The Giants cards are all fun too. Always enjoyable to get a Lincecum. The Brandon Crawford rookie is great. The Jonathan Sanchez confuses me immensely since it’s so thick. As someone who puts cards into binders I still don’t know what to do with these thick cards.

Part two however was for my sons.

They were excited to see the pack and couldn’t wait for me to open it. I dutifully explained to them that it was a wax pack made of paper that had been stuck together and opened it slowly so they could see how it all worked.

The first thing we had to do was carefully unstick the gum from one of the cards. No damage. They were intrigued by the gum but did not try. I did. It turns to dust and never becomes chewable. I had to rinse my mouth out.

The cards though are pretty cool. Both boys love the Christopher Reeve Superman films and while they prefer the first one, they appreciate that I prefer the second. Of the twelve in the pack I like the one of the villains escaping the Phantom Zone and the one of Clark Kent getting his revenge on the asshole in the diner.

In a bit of a minor miracle the boys managed to split these into two piles of six without fighting. More predictably they promptly badgered me for binder pages so they could properly sort them.

It’s funny. Once I started collecting baseball cards I never considered any other sports—let alone non-sport cards like these. I never saw the point. I get it more now although I daresay that it only works when the movie cards are of something from pop culture which has achieved staying power. In the same way that it’s been fun to introduce my kids to Superman the Motion Picture, seeing and having these cards is another aspect of pop culture we can bond over.

Now I need to figure out what to do with the blank card the I’m supposed to “decorate” and sign and return. It’s a little small for my kids to draw on* but we’ll figure something out.

*My eldest did make a special 1:1 custom for Peter as a result of being on the receiving end of a large mailing of Giants cards.


Because I’ve sort of had to provide a ranked list of Pixar films in the past. In the style of the Star Wars list now that I’m caught up on all but The Good Dinosaur.

Edited in December 2016 to reflect having watched Finding Dory and Good Dinosaur as well as rewatching and reevaluating Finding Nemo in the wake of Finding Dory.

Edited in November 2017 to reflect having watched Cars 3 and Coco.

Edited in February 2018 to reflect having watched Coco en español.

Edited in June 2018 to reflect having watched Incredibles 2.

Edited in March 2020 to reflect having watched Toy Story 4.

Edited in April 2020 to reflect having watched Cars 2 and Onward.

Coco (en español)
The Incredibles
Finding Dory
Incredibles 2

Toy Story 2
Finding Nemo
Cars 3
Inside Out
Toy Story 3
Toy Story
Toy Story 4

Monsters Inc.
A Bugs Life

Monsters University
Cars 2
Good Dinosaur

Yeah, I suspect that I rank Cars way higher than most people do. But I do have a special relationship with that movie.

Star Wars Rankings

Just a quick follow up to yesterday’s huge post. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to list my rankings/ratings for the six Star Wars films both before and after my recent rewatch.

Note: these are using the San Francisco Chronicle’s Little Man rating system. While this is sadly no longer in use, it’s what I grew up with and find still makes the most sense. Ebert’s writeup on it is wonderful.


Empire Strikes Back

Return of the Jedi
Revenge of the Sith

A New Hope
The Phantom Menace

Attack of the Clones


Empire Strikes Back
Revenge of the Sith
Return of the Jedi

A New Hope
Attack of the Clones

The Phantom Menace

It’s worth noting that nothing bumped down the ratings after the rewatch. While I harp on Phantom Menace a lot it has enough good stuff going on in it to be watchable.

Star Wars

My son just finished watching the Star Wars films for the first time. He’s 6, which seemed a bit young except that I remember playing with and being saturated in Star Wars stuff when I was in Kindergarten in the early 80s. I actually didn’t see the movies until later—I fell into the generation which was too young to see them in the theater but too old to have them always there on VHS—but the books and merchandise and plot spoilers were all over. Anyway, since he’s already been spoilered on some of the key plot developments anyway* he may as well watch everything so he knows the whole story.

*Between Toy Story 2, Sesame Street, and his classmates, the “Luke, I am your father” twist is a foregone conclusion.

For my part, it’s been a while since I last watched these. While I saw the A New Hope Special Edition in the theater, because it made me swear off the rest of the special editions, my last viewings of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were in the mid-90s. Watching The Phantom Menace in theaters meanwhile made me swear off the prequels—though I did eventually watch Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith on DVD for completionist reasons.

I still counted myself a Star Wars fan but I had ended up in a place where I didn’t like two of the movies at all (Menace and Clones), had serious issues with a third (Hope), and was generally skeptical of the entire franchise because of the way the fans behave. Star Wars fandom has turned into this weird thing where the discourse has been more about what sucks than what’s good.* Most of the fans came to Star Wars as kids—obviously with different entry points depending on their ages—and are heavily biased toward the movies they fell for as kids. Which is fine except that in discussing what they like they revert to arguing like kids on the playground were it’s not enough to like something, they have to also tear down what the other guy likes too.

*Geek tribalism which is more about what you consume than actually enjoying something.

So I was looking forward to a rewatch not only to revisit and rethink my opinions of the movies, but also with the hope that my son’s reactions—especially given how many of the things which turned me off were defended as being “for the kids”—would counteract some of my more-cynical opinions. That said, our rewatch included the theatrical releases of the original trilogy because I’m still heavily against the special editions. Yes, I know that the changes to Empire are generally good, but I wanted to keep Jabba a mystery and preserve Han’s more Tuco-like origin…plus avoid the awful new song at Jabba’s palace.

I also wanted to try machete order (but including Phantom Menace) to confirm that it indeed makes as much sense as it does on paper.

It works.

A New Hope

One big reason is that A New Hope is probably the best entry point into the story for a kid. While it has still has problems in pacing*—besides taking forever to get to Luke and from there, into the main story, the final battle is a complete mess—those problems are only apparent to older viewers.** For a kid who isn’t comparing it to the rest of the movies, it looks great*** and the plot is super simple and easy to follow. There’s nothing complicated to explain or figure out what’s going on under the surface, everything is clearly laid out and understandable. It even has an unambiguously nice resolution at the end.

*I’m not going to talk about the acting since it’s all intentionally hammy anyway.

**Pretty much the entire plot is advanced by the Empire being less destructive than we’re told that it is. It could have destroyed Leia’s ship at the beginning, shot down the escape pod, or even just destroyed the planet of Yavin rather than waiting to orbit it to get to a moon.

***Another reason to start with A New Hope is that it looks the worst but that’s only apparent after you’ve watched the rest of the movies.

I still like it. A lot. Despite its problems. It’s fantastic at sketching out the world and main characters and letting me imagine all kinds of possibilities for them. Heck, most of the subsequent critiques of various parts of the franchise come back to people being disappointed in it not going the way they’d imagined it going after watching A New Hope. It’s also the only movie of the 6 that my son wants to rewatch—and that’s saying a lot too.

Empire Strikes Back

There’s not a lot to say about Empire. It’s deservedly known as the best of the series and represents a massive step up in terms of both quality and complexity. Even though the plot is still super-straightforward, there are more issues going on in terms of character motivation and choice—specifically following directions vs helping friends—that really resonate with a kid.

It’s also the first downer ending that my son has seen; he was incredulous when the credits started. I had to explain that the idea is to get him to want to watch the next movie—and that it had obviously worked.

This is where the machete order takes off. While my son was, correctly, concerned with Han’s fate, he was also very curious about learning about Darth Vader and how he got his scar.* So we moved on to Phantom Menace.

*One scene in Empire without Vader’s helmet and my son immediately lumped Vader, Zuko, and Two Face together as similarly-flawed antagonists.

Phantom Menace

My memories of Menace are not good. Between the hype and the disappointment and the pile-on, it never really stood a chance. I went to see it in the theater with a bunch of friends and we snarked all about about it on the ride home. We were in college. That’s what we did. With time, I softened a bit with the snark but was still apprehensive about rewatching.

While the rewatch helped a little, it also confirmed many of my initial reactions. First, all the “it’s for the kids” defenses don’t hold up for me. It’s not that there’s too much plot for a kids’ movie but rather that the plot is possibly too subtle for many kids to really understand. I actually really like the plot, but the idea that an ambitious senator would engineer a war on his own planet so that he could garner enough sympathy in the senate to be voted its leader isn’t the stuff of kids movies. And while there’s a simpler plot where two Jedi help a queen defend her home planet against invasion, that plot renders a lot of the action and talking—especially the talking—as being irrelevant. It didn’t surprise me at all that “Too much talking,” was indeed my son’s immediate review.

But Menace also manages to trigger way too many of my pet peeves. I can’t stand it when characters are willingly stupid.* The “this feels kind of racist” accents** pull me out of the flow of the movie. I get bored easily with extended action sequences that don’t advance the plot.*** Humor that is too obvious yet is also trying too hard to be funny**** makes me want to stand up and leave. And plot points which repeatedly rely on luck and coincidence rather than skill***** get me frustrated.

*JarJar’s repeated doing exactly what people tell him not to do.

**JarJar and the Trade Federation.

***Too many examples to count but Pod Racing, especially with its “just wait for the videogame” direction, does fall into this category. Note, this problem of mine means I not only have a problem with most action movies but also most musicals.

****All the fart jokes.

*****Pretty much everything Anakin does—from lucking out that his pod doesn’t break to hitting the correct button by mistake in the droid ship—is portrayed as dumb luck. But other characters like JarJar also repeatedly get bailed out by blundering into the exact right place at the right time.

I used to think that Menace was bad Star Wars but a decent movie. My opinion has flipped. I really dig it for Star Wars now; I can’t stand it as a movie. Which is too bad since it looks wonderful and the last Duel of the Fates sequence is indeed a ton of fun.

Attack of the Clones

Clones meanwhile is a movie that I initially hated—HATED—and now really like. On all fronts. I’m as surprised as anyone here. The Obi-Wan detective stuff is great. As much as people think Star Wars is a western,* it’s really Hammett→Kurosawa→Westerns, and this plot line is comes straight through that legacy.

*Among other things in its 1950s B-movie influences of course.

The Anakin-Padmé stuff meanwhile is still cringe-worthily bad* yet I no longer hate it. What used to feel like the worst attempts at romance writing ever are now something that cracks me up. Anakin’s like 16 years old in this movie. OF COURSE he’s hilariously horrible at this. That there’s also something creepy and manipulative in the way he persists despite Padmé telling him to stop perfectly sets up the emotional abuse—let alone the violence—that comes in Revenge of the Sith. And yeah, maybe that’s not the intent behind the direction in these sections, but that ended up being my reaction to it all this time.

*Note. It appears to be vastly better in the Spanish dub—to the point where I’m considering a second rewatch already. 

The plot in this one is much easier to follow for a kid. Find out who attacked the senator, uncover bigger plot that’s okay to not understand, save your ass once things get out of control. My son amusingly fell asleep during the droid factory sequence* but was super into the detective search, the Shmi storyline,** as well as the climactic battle.

*He was exhausted but this part is still a brainless videogame preview. Thankfully it was also shorter than I remembered.

**Especially the Shmi storyline. After watching Tarzan and How to Train Your Dragon 2 I thought he’d passed the parent death hangups. But this hit him hard and I had to explain not only how death is part of life but also that being unwilling to accept death as a concept is a trope that will come up again and again as a characteristic of “bad guys” who are so afraid of death that they don’t do anything good with their lives.

Revenge of the Sith

I really liked Sith when I first saw it. I liked it even more on the rewatch. In my initial viewing, the only thing that really bugged me was the speed of Anakin’s fall. Watching again, in the same way that realizing how young Anakin is in Clones made his romancing much more bearable, his youth—plus my being a decade more removed from that age than I was the first time—makes his fall to the dark side more credible. The only person who’s appeared to listen and talk with Anakin about his issues is Palpatine.

It’s also engrossing to watch how the Jedi end up basically destroying themselves through getting mired in power disputes and internal politics. As much as the prequels are supposed to be about Anakin turning into Darth Vader, they’re really about Palpatine creating the Empire and the Jedi losing their way through a combination of being ignorant of how politics works and a lack of flexibility in their conception of the force.

While this large-scale plot makes little sense to a kid, watching Anakin lose everything because of his concern for his family—especially with Shmi’s  death still fresh in my son’s mind—really sucked my son in. The idea that having a good motivation can still lead you to lose track of right and wrong is a very simple yet very heavy concept. As is the idea that trying so hard to get what you want can result in you losing everything you wanted. The scene where Anakin breaks Padme’s heart had my son in tears because of both her anguish and the fact that Anakin brought it all on himself.

The downer ending also comes with a genuine twist in that my son was shocked to find out that Luke and Leia are twins. Between that and the binary sunset reprise, we were both primed and ready to start Return of the Jedi.

Return of the Jedi

Jedi is fun. It’s also a mess in that it’s really just rescuing Han and then pretty much the big final battle. But we’re back to the super simple plotlines and my son sensed that the happy ending was coming. Yes he liked the Ewoks—but then I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t. The Ewoks are cute but deadly and are exactly the kind of creature that the Empire wouldn’t take seriously.

He was also a lot more introspective about death in terms of realizing that force ghosts and being at peace with yourself were a much more rational approach to death than what he’d just watched in Sith. It’s not the action or suspense that disturbed him but rather all the philosophy about life and death. We had many conversations at bedtime while we were watching the movies but the resolution of Jedi also put his mind at ease.

We also talked about The Force Awakens and how since the new movies were going to be about Luke and Leia and Han’s kids, that it was entirely possible—if not expected—for some of the characters he knows to die in the upcoming movies.

If the first unexpected result of my rewatching all six movies was that I’d place Attack of the Clones in the same middle tier as A New Hope in terms of ranking the films. The second was that instead of my son revealing the joy of all the “for the kids” stuff that drives me nuts, he dragged me into a serious discussion about death and how to live a fulfilling life.

I’m looking forward to a second rewatch once my younger son is old enough. By then, maybe my elder son will engage more with the seriousness of the prequel plots and can salvage Phantom Menace for me.

California State Railroad Museum

Andrew J. Russell. The "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, U.T., May 10, 1869.
Andrew J. Russell. The “Last Spike”

We’ve been going to the train museum for a couple years now. Now that the kids are finally old enough to leave alone in the train table area,* I’ve finally been able to take a proper look at the exhibits. I also finally caught the movie** they show there so I can comment on that too.

*As in they don’t care if one parent disappears for a while now.

**They can sit through movies now too! Though the youngest still cries out “TRAIN!” whenever he sees one on-screen.

Corky Lee. Restaging The "Last Spike."
Corky Lee. Restaging The “Last Spike”

The movie is different that I remember as a kid. Makes sense since it’s from 1990 even though it looks at least 5 years older than that.* It’s much more multicultural than the museum and film I remembered. When I was a kid my mom always pointed out how the famous “Last Spike” photo had none of the Chinese workers in it. Only this spring has it been officially acknowledged by Congress. And it’s been fun to see Corky Lee’s restaging of the photo in celebration. Now, the Chinese contribution to the construction of the railroad is emphasized almost immediately and the museum displays include artifacts from the labor camps.

*Seriously. This screams early/mid-80s, not 1990 to me—which confused me a lot this time since it LOOKS like something I should have been able to watch as a child.

The movie also mentions that the industry employed a ton of black labor on the service side and latino labor on the trainyard side. Very multicultural. Kind of nice to see this degree of awareness in something so dated. And kind of scary since it’s evidence that we’re into three decades now and so many people still don’t see, or refuse to see, this side of things.

There was also a special photography exhibit this time. In this case, it was about early railroad photography and how it sold the industry to the public. There was lots of stuff about early cameras and stereoscopic prints* which I kind of glossed over. I was more interested in how the museum displayed original photos with the engraved versions printed in newspapers, noting the differences in composition and scale and suggesting that these were intentional changes made on behalf of the people who owned both the railroads and the newspapers.

*Though if that’s your bag, they had a lot of Alfred A. Hart on display. The Getty has a decent sample of the kind of thing which was on display. The University of Nevada Reno has a ton of his work. And Stanford has a decent collection too.

The highlight though was being able to look through a full-size reproduction of Andrew J. Russell’s Great West Illustrated. As someone whose favorite photobook may be Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire, looking through, in many ways, an identical project documenting the landscape around a railroad’s construction, rather than its ruins, was great and pointed out a lot of details that were lost by the time Ruwedel did his project.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael's Cut, Granite Canon.
Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael’s Cut, Granite Canon

Much of the geography of railroading involves cutting through the landscape in order to keep a track graded correctly. These scars are prominent in Ruwedel as they’re the most-permanent landscape modification from railroading. I was unaware that they had names and seeing each cut given a special name in Russell’s album, gives a a more personal sense of things.

It’s not just a scar on the landscape. The cuts reflect a lot of manpower and effort and each one is unique. We no longer see the uniqueness since we’re looking at the absence of the railroad rather than marveling at its presence.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River.
Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River

Russell’s photos also include a number of references to coal beds and even a town called Coalville. This is something else that is easy to forget. Railroads are inherently tied to the natural resources they need to consume in order to run. Especially when building them in a place without any existing railroads for transport.

That the photos include a lot of the infrastructure required to support the railroads shows that it’s not just about the achievement of laying the track, this is about development and taming nature.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains.
Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains

It’s this intersection of development and nature which really puts Russell’s photos into the tradition of people like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins who are credited with defining much of the way we view the American West. When Russell isn’t showing how the railroad infrastructure is conquering the landscape, he’s showing us photos of the incredible views and wide open spaces available for people to move into. This is a land of opportunity, a land of growth, a land of potential.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon.
Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon
Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes.
Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes

There’s also a completely different scale to the landscape in the West. Almost all of the photos include a human figure in the image. Some of this may be to hammer the “we’re here and can conquer this” point. But a lot of it is also just to provide scale. The landscape is huge.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle.
Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle

But it’s settleable. Russell ends his journey in Salt Lake City with images that show a legitimate city nestled in the mountains. There’s also some curiosity about the Mormons, but it’s very clear that we can live in the West. And the railroads can take us there.

Besides the history side of things, I like a lot of the photos as photos even though all I had available to look at was a laminated digital print from a copy of the albumen print in the book. It’s not enough for him to just photograph the distinct landscape elements, I like his compositions and the way he’s able to situate so many of them in the landscape. I especially like the Hanging Rock photo and the way he’s used it to frame the settlement below it. Makes me wonder how much it would cost to buy a real print from the Oakland Museum.