Monoliths and Lightsabers

In (I believe it was) 1990, I took a course in college called Monoliths and Lightsabers. I have reason to remember this course on an almost weekly basis – more when there’s a Star Wars movie in everyone’s attention.

The course was a review of the 2001 movies, and the Star Wars movies, from multiple academic perspectives.

We watched ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘, and all three Star Wars movies, a number of times during the semester. We also watched some other movies, which may or may not have included ‘Spaceballs‘ and ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ (more about that in a moment).

Each week we had a guest lecturer. A physics lecturer talked about the science of warp drive and lightsabers, as well as transporters, laser guns, and so on. A philosopher and a theologian talked about the Force. A literature professor talked about the development of story and character. Of course, a film professor talked about the magic of film making, and the incredible technology that was invented to make Star Wars, as well as how astonishing 2001 was in 1968, although it seems rather slow to today’s audiences. An artist talked about the use of color in Star Wars, and in 2001, to convey certain themes more subtly than blowing things up. I vaguely remember a physical education teacher (dance, maybe?) talking about the use of martial arts and tai chi in the Star Wars choreography. A history professor talked about the Nazi imagery in Star Wars, and the use of other historical events as part of the plot.

One week, a music professor talked about the use of music in Star Wars. The per-character theme music is something that was common films of an earlier age, but has largely faded from modern cinema. And the use of music in 2001 was powerful, in that the Zarathustra theme evokes discovery, but also darkness.

I asked this professor (remember, this was a small, private, Christian college) what other movies similarly used music in such a powerful way. A Clockwork Orange was suggested, which we then went and rented and watched. It’s quite a shocking movie, particularly to 19 year old me.

Similarly, the art professor recommended ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover‘, which, while using color in the most fascinating way I’ve ever seen in any movie, before or since, was a truly appalling watch. Very, very disturbing movie. I cannot recommend that anyone actually watch it, but the use of color was amazing.

(By the way, another movie that uses color brilliantly is the new ‘Anna Karenina‘, which is beautiful enough that I considered reading that awful book again.)

The professor of this course, Richard Sherry, also did another course that was an overview of Science Fiction, where we read, among other things, The Left Hand of Darkness, which would probably have been quite a controversial choice if the administration had been aware. Dr. Sherry was, in his quiet way, one of my most influential professors in college, although I don’t know if I’ve ever told him that.

I’ve been thinking about this course due to the new popularity of Star Wars, but also because I’ve been asked recently what my favorite, most memorable course was in college. 22 years on from college, this is the one course that I remember most clearly, and which I refer to in my mind the most often, closely followed by the Sci Fi course. I was already a big Sci Fi fan at the time, but the class introduced me to authors that I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read, like Anne McCaffrey, and Ursula Le Guin, The Earthsea books remain some of my favorite of the genre. And, also, filled some of the huge gaps in my reading, such as ‘Stranger in a Strange Land‘.