Fairy Dust

A few months ago I went to a huge SF and Fantasy convention here in Toronto. It had all the stuff you’d expect in a convention of this sort: Books and Comic Books, Action Figures, DVD’s, Vintage memorabilia, T-shirts, toys, posters, video games. The Common stuff and the rare stuff.

Yes. It was Geek Heaven, and I was relishing every minute of it.

I’m kind of used to seeing all that stuff from smaller conventions I’ve been to in Israel. It’s basically the same, only BIGGER.

And yet, there was one thing I wasn’t used to, and that got me very excited. That was the big roster of famous Science Fiction celebrities attending the Con and signing autographs.
That is, until I came to understand the dubious financial drive behind it all.

Let’s not pretend. SF Cons, or any Fan Cons for that matter, are a money making machine. A commercial enterprise. They exist, first and foremost, for the purpose of selling stuff to the fans. That’s how the game is played. That’s capitalism. And it’s fine. Nobody forces anyone to go to a Con and spend money. Fan Conventions are very similar to Casinos. They psychologically erode your resistance. They’re usually held in huge enclosed places with no windows. Bright lights, and a lot of noise. You find yourself lost, delirious, hypnotized by the oodles of goodies splayed in front of you, and thus, your ability to make logical decisions is compromised. It might be that if you were in a regular store you wouldn’t have bought that 25$ Jawa club because, well, you don’t really need it. You just bought it to make yourself feel better. Unless it’s that great book or movie you’ve always wanted to buy, you look at all this stuff you bought: The toys, the gizmos, the stuff, and once you’re home, without all the noise and clutter and bright lights, you ask yourself: Why did I spend 150 dollars if I swore to myself I won’t spend more than 20?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Where was I? Oh, Celebrities’ autographs.

For me, seeing Jonathan Frakes, Robert Beltran and Dwight Shultz all at the same time is a big deal. I’ve always been a huge Star Trek fan, ever since I hid behind the couch when I was five years old and Mr. Spock was on TV, freaking the hell out of me with his monstrous ears. So yeah, it was exciting to know that those guys are going to be there.
Now, something to understand about this autographs thing: They sit on a low podium, behind tables, with enlarged, official Star Trek photos of themselves on the table. And then you step up when your turn comes, you chat a bit with them, you buy a photograph – basically, buying the autograph – for the staggering amount of 30 dollars. And that’s it. If you’re lucky, you stand there for more than two minutes. Then you can take a picture with them, (at least that’s for free).
I don’t know who’s making money out of this. I’m pretty sure the actors get a big chunk of it, though. It’s work for them, it’s a living. Long years after their TV series is off the air, and they don’t work as much as they used to, they come to these conventions and get their dollars directly out of the pockets pf eager fans. In return, they need to pretend they enjoy sitting for hours in a booth, signing autographs, and smiling to people they never saw and will never see again. But hey, that’s show business for you, especially when it comes to fandom.

As an actor, you can leave Star Trek, or Buffy, or Battlestar Galactica for that matter, but these shows never leave you. This is the power of Genre fandom. those are the modern myths of our time. For a great take on this, I urge you to check out a fantastic picture called Galaxy Quest. Please go see it. Now.

So Jonathan Frakes looked old. Really old. He wore glasses and his beard was grey. My friend, who was with me, and didn’t have any moral of financial qualms as I did, just stepped up to everyone, bought a photo and took a photo. I attached myself to him like a barnacle on a killer whale in order to speak a word or two with the legends. I was especially in awe in front of Jonathan Frakes, Commander William T. Riker for you. We went up to him, shook his hand, chatted a bit. But all and all, it was a bit of a letdown. He seemed very tired, although he was quite amiable.

Dwight Shultz, on the other hand, was quite nice, and I actually got to have a kind of conversation with him. It seems that the bigger stars are usually the more impatient ones, while the “supporting actors” are more forthcoming. Shultz, by the way, not only played Lt. Barclay both on Star Trek: The Next Generation and ST: Voyager (and also appeared in the awesome First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes…), but he was also “Howling mad” Murdock on The A team, so we’re talking an 80’s legend here.

And all of that brings me to David Prowse. Prowse, for those of you who always confuse Star Wars with Star Trek, is the 2 meter tall guy who was actually in the suit. The voice was provided by James Earl Jones, but Prowse was the one walkin’ the walk (except for most of the lightsaber fight scenes, where he was played by the premiere Hollywood swashbuckling guru, Bob Anderson).

Prowse was sitting right next to all those Star Trek guys (and next to Malcolm McDowell, which he appeared alongside with in A Clockwork Orange. I was absolutely mind-boggled by this, though I didn’t see them talk to each other).

So all these guys from my most beloved franchises, sitting next to each other… but most of them didn’t seem like they really wanted to be there, except maybe for Schultz. Prowse is old. He had a hip surgery so he can’t really walk. But… but… it’s Darth Vader! I thought. It’s the guy… that played Darth Vader… who was in the suit… the actual guy from the movie. A living legend. There. In front of me.
And me being so provincial, from a small distant country, which is not particularly well-known as being a meeting place for legendary Science Fiction personas… and the noise, and the bright lights, and no windows, no windows… and all those people… and Darth Vader sitting there… Oh. My. God.

My resolve shattered. To hell with the money. I had to get his autograph. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Yes. I will get his autograph, and shake his hand, and talk to him, to the guy who played one of the best villains in cinema history. (of course, James Earl Jones played him as much as Prowse did, but that small fact didn’t deter me. I mean, this was the actual guy in the black suit).
And I was not ready to settle for a measly photo. I doubled back and ran through the maze of stands and tables and people until I found what I was looking for: A Darth Vader mask, which, with the touch of a button, speaks lines from the movie. It was a toy, basically. A toy. And I was determined to have Prowse autograph the Darth Vader mask. I was very pleased with myself for coming up with this idea. I thought it was brilliant.

What I didn’t know, of course, was that you pay for the autograph as well as for the item you’re autographing. So if you buy a toy which costs 30$, you will pay 60$ for the entire package. But I was beyond caring. Filled with an intoxicating sense of adolescent, geeky giddiness, I ran like the wind towards the table. I stood in line, cradling the big, bulky mask like a baby, inching my way. And then I was there. I handed him the box. I said “hi” an gave the 60 dollars to his assistant. He said: “I’m going to autograph on the box, ok?”. I nodded, with a stupid grin on my face. He wrote: “David Prowse is Darth Vader”, signed it, and handed me the box. He seemed so tired, like he did it thousands of times already, which he probably had. I shook his hand. My friend took a picture (and I need to get the pictures from him and put it here. Or else, it’s pretty lame).

And that’s it. That was all. I took the huge box, stepped aside and looked at it. And then I looked at it again. And again. And suddenly, it was as if I awoke from a dream. I was standing there, with a huge Hasbro toy in my hands. My friend said: You should’ve let him sign on the helmet”. I said: “Ha?”
“The helmet. It would’ve been worth much more”.
“I didn’t do all this to make money. I did this because I wanted to have this”.
But then I looked at the box again, and suddenly, it all seemed stupid. I glances back. David Prowse was getting up, aided by his comely assistant who must have been 50 years younger. She helped him down. I looked at them, and then I looked at the box again. And they I realized.

This isn’t Darth Vader. It’s some guy who was in the suit 30 years ago. Darth Vader exists only in the movies. He is magic. He is a trick of light and sound. Just like all these other tired actors sitting there. The characters they play… it’s something intangible. Frakes isn’t Riker. Riker is Riker. We’re coming to these conventions to see the actors, but all we do is trying to touch the magic, to grab some fairy dust to take home with us. This is what the autographs are for. (And I’m not talking about those who want to sell autographs. That’s a different subject for a different post, but as you will soon see, I was a culprit too).

But it’s pointless. You can’t have the magic. Once the the film has been made, the thing projected on the screen isn’t a technical equation of celluloid, cables, and cardboard sets. It’s an ephemeral thing. And whatever you do, you can’t grab it with your hands and take it home. You can try. You can collect memorabilia and autographs, but it will never be the real deal. The real deal is what’s up on screen. If the filmmakers were successful, it is a magic trick, a made up reality that engrosses and makes you believe in it. Otherwise, it’s a noisy splotch if light that fails to engage. In any case, it is what it is.

So what I had in my hands was a piece of plastic with the scribbling of an old, very tall man. Yes, it was exciting for a second there, but, well, maybe if I could’ve chatted with him about how it was like in the olden days, etc, I could’ve taken something with me, a substantial memory (and memories, like movies, are also intangible entities which we try to recreate and make tangible, in vain).
But as it was, the word “anti-climax” would be an understatement.

And then I saw them putting him in a wheelchair and rolling him right past us, and I couldn’t watch it. Talk about destroying your illusions.

The mask is sitting in my house for a couple of months now. I did try to sell it on e-bay. I was told that it’s worth a try. The interest was nill. All I got from it is annoying e-bay junk mail. In any case It seems that David Prowse doesn’t mean much in the fanboy world today. Or maybe it was because it’s just a stupid talking helmet. Or maybe it was because the autograph is on the box. Or maybe. Or maybe.

Still, I try not to dwell too much on this kind of stuff (duh!). It was still an experience. It was a lesson, too. A lesson about fandom and Star Wars and Conventions, about the magic and power of cinema, and about the people who create those characters and what it all means to us.
Because a few weeks later I watched for the 100th time that first scene from Star Wars, where the rebel ship is boarded by Imperial troops, and Darth Vader steps inside and demands to know where the plans are and he chokes the poor guy and flungs him against the wall.

And then I looked at the helmet and the autograph again, trying to think: “the guy who was in that scene held this box and signed on it”, but it wouldn’t click. I just couldn’t find any relation between the two. Because the guy who signed it was David Prowse, a very tall body builder, now very old and in a wheelchair. But the guy who entered the rebel ship through a haze of smoke was Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, AKA Anakin Skywalker, who apparently didn’t age at all over the past 30 years. He is still menacing. Still standing tall. Still choking people by using the dark side of The Force.

We want so much for our favorite characters and stories and make-believe worlds to exist in real life, that we grab every ounce of fairy dust we can, to play with it and keep it and hold on to it, even if it sometimes frustrates us.

And what is a Con if not a huge warehouse full of the stuff?


1 comment so far

  1. shel berman on

    I guess you felt like those pilgrims who traveled weeks to reach a cathedral that hold a relic of some sort. they would have thought: “this cloth touched the body of christ…” and I guess it was enough for them, enough – it was their whole life. We need our ceremonies too, our small symbols of immortality to clutch. When you think of it seriously, it melts away. That’s growing up. It ain’t easy.

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