Day Trips

Darth Vader
Darth Vader (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Star Wars: The Magic of Myth at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, does more than just revive the Force. The traveling exhibit tells not just the story of costumes and movie props, but it also subtly dissects the centuries-old art of storytelling. The exhibit appeals to many different generations on many different levels.

For many visitors, the 10 rooms of original characters and models will be a chance to see the tools of moviemaking. Those that view the Star Wars series simply as science fiction movies will be delighted in the unique assembly of items from the LucasFilms archives.

All of the favorites are in attendance at the show. Following the storyline from the original trilogy through The Phantom Menace (1999), the exhibit begins with the six-foot model of the Imperial Star Destroyer used in filming the exterior shots of the space ship. Lorne Peterson, master modelmaker on all of the Star Wars pictures, described the one-of-a-kind models as decidedly low tech. Look closely to see wheels and suspension parts from plastic model kits giving the space ships their texture. It is amazing how the mother of invention sometimes works.

On display in the exhibit, of course, are the robots C-3PO and R2-D2. Without the magic of film, hairy monsters like Chewbacca the Wookie and the Wampa Ice Creature are rather lifeless, but not without their ferocity. Acrylic characters like Yoda and Jabba the Hutt tend to be a little less imposing without video animation.

On the walls next to many of the actual movie props are the conceptual drawings that preceded production. It is interesting to compare the storyboard sketches and colorful paintings of what the characters and scenes were imagined to look like with the finished product. The set designers came remarkably close to re-creating the fantastic art of illustrator Ralph McQuarrie.

The costumes worn by the main characters range from the simple white robes worn by Princess Leia to the space suits that look like they could move at any moment. It is hard for the Imperial Stormtrooper uniforms and the costume of Darth Vader not to look imposing even when empty. An audio tour narrated by James Earl Jones that comes with the admission gives insight and anecdotes about the making of the films.

One of the most interesting parts of the entire exhibit is a 30-minute introductory film about making the movies. Before beginning production on the first film, Lucas spent two years studying mythology from around the world. He was particularly inspired by Japanese samurai films.

When the Star Wars trilogy was first released between 1977 and 1983, the films were the marketing blockbusters of their day. Behind the trinkets and toys that filled store shelves there was a story that appealed to the time-honored imagination of youth. Lucas' films included elements of Buck Rogers, Tom Sawyer, the tales of King Arthur, and ageless stories.

Anna Cohn, director of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, defends fine art museums' decisions to show a pop phenomenon along with classic art works. "These types of exhibits open art museums to those who might not go to museums and entices them to explore the myths and magic of the fine arts," she says. Judging by the sell-out crowds that have descended upon the exhibit in San Diego, Chicago, and other cities, the museum will reach a large number of visitors who rarely explore the collections of masterworks.

Janet Landay, MFAH curator of exhibitions, and her staff have written a companion brochure, "The Journey Continues," that takes visitors on a self-guided tour of the museum's permanent collection depicting parallel themes, like the protective powers of icons, the stories of Hercules, and the struggle between good and evil.

Lucas didn't invent anything that ancient African, Chinese, Japanese, and even Mayan cultures had not used before. He just figured out how to present universal themes in a new way. The films set the standard for a new generation of science fiction films to follow. Being able to see pieces of what went into making the films brings the movies down to earth a little bit.

The exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It has traveled to four U.S. cities; it will complete the national tour with three more cities and then head overseas, beginning in Australia. An exclusive to this stop on the tour is the costume of Darth Maul from the 1999 film.

Unusual for art museum exhibits, visitors are welcome to bring flash cameras to have their pictures taken with their favorite Star Wars characters. "That's part of the fun," says Marian Luntz, MFAH curator of film and video.

Admission to the Star Wars exhibit, which will be in Houston through June 24, is by timed tickets (issued for a specific date and time) that are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Tickets can be purchased at the Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street, or by calling 888/733-6324. Tickets are half price on Thursday and Friday from 5pm to 8pm. During the show's run at the museum, Sunday afternoons are Family Day with special activities.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, 10am-7pm, Thursday and Friday, 10am-9pm, and Sunday, 12:15-7pm, closed on Monday. For more information, call 713/639-7300 or www.mfah.org.

Coming up this weekend ...

Mud Dauber Festival and Dance in Luckenbach features outdoor music, games, and fun, March 17. 830/997-3224 or www.luckenbachtexas.com.

Dyeing o' the River Green turns the San Antonio River along the River Walk into the River Shannan as the Alamo City celebrates St. Patrick's Day, March 17. 210/227-4262 or www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com.

Texas Indian Hobbyist Meet in Llano offers a powwow of exchanging ideas and Indian art and artifacts, March 17-18. 915/247-4158.

Houston Writers Conference explores the written word with writers, editors, and publishers, March 15-18. 713/554-2710 or www.houstonwritersleague.org.

Coming up ...

Tyler County Dogwood Festival in Tyler celebrates the rites of spring and the blooming of the trees, March 24 & 31. 409/283-2632.

Introduction to Birdwatching at Pedernales Falls State Park offers the basics of bird biology, behavior, and identification, March 24-25, 8:30am-noon, reservations required. 830/868-7304.

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