Monday, May 7, 2007

Star Wars - Thirty Years Later


As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Star Wars, first exhibited on May 25, 1977, thirty-something sci-fi geeks like myself are brimming with nostalgia for that amazing summer, "a long time ago..." For some folks, it's easy. They stood in line for hours on the first day the film came into their town, they found their seats in a cramped theater that may not have even had stereo, they saw that massive Star Destroyer for the first time, and they knew -- there had never before been a movie as awesome or amazing or fun as Star Wars. They poured out of the theater, firmly telling their friends, "I'm seeing that again." That's how I imagine it, but that's not how I experienced it. While I don't think there was anyone else in the Florida town of Dunedin who loved Star Wars as much as I did, I must have been the last kid in town to see it.

I was nine years old in 1977. I'd seen some advertisements for Star Wars on television, and it looked pretty cool. But I was also interested in seeing The Rescuers, a Disney movie that also appeared that summer. At the time, my Mom was working as a substitute teacher, so we had very little money; going out for a movie was a luxury. Mom explained that I had to choose between Star Wars and The Rescuers. At the age of nine, that choice seemed pretty significant. I might not see another movie for months, and I didn't want to waste my opportunity. After a while, all of my friends had seen Star Wars, and I felt embarrassed that I couldn't share in their recaps. But The Rescuers attracted my interest as well, and I couldn't quite decide. The weeks went by, and I waited. Toward the end of summer, though, my choice was made for me. The Disney flick left the theaters and Star Wars was still running strong. One day at the beach my Mom asked me if I'd like to see Star Wars that afternoon. I agreed: It was time to learn what my friends meant when they talked reverently about hyperspace and wookies and TIE fighters.


I don't remember the day, though it was hot. It was probably sometime in July. We dried off from our day at the beach and went to Countryside Mall. Countryside had a six-plex theater, which seemed pretty big to me back then. Usually we caught second-run flicks at the tiny theater in the shopping center near where we lived. I remember that theater's single screen as being tiny as a closet. In comparison, the Countryside Six was huge, big enough to see Star Wars, I figured. It was an afternoon matinee and there were no crowds. We entered the cool dark room and took our seats as the lights dimmed.

Everyone talks about that first moment when the Star Destroyer fills the screen, getting more and more massive. They recall the deep bass rumbling of the engines, and they describe a visceral feeling of awe. But I didn't react immediately to the film's spectacle. I accepted it, more or less, on its own terms. My struggle was trying to make sense of the plot, which was a bit overwhelming to me.

First these guys are shooting these other guys in white armor. Then there's this dude in black armor who looks like a monster, growling something about some other guy being a part of the rebel alliance and being a traitor. Then these two robots crash-land on a desert planet and get snatched up by some tiny creatures with glowing eyes. Then a whiny farm boy gets hit by another monster and meets an old man with a beard. Then there's this cool glowing sword and some talk about "the force." And then... I've known for years that it is rude to talk while a movie is playing, but I had to lean over and ask my Mom just what the heck was going on.

Our first and most meaningful experiences are often tied to a complex array of feelings. In that darkened theater, I asked my Mom to explain Star Wars because I'd long grown used to her patient explanations of things that confused me. She was a single mother, poor and overworked, stressed and scared about an unknown future. It's strange to write this, knowing that she was younger then than I am now. I should add that I couldn't have been easy to handle. As a nine-year-old, I was a fairly troubled kid, hyper and odd. She and I were lonely for different reasons. But my Mom always had time for me, and she was always willing to explain things to me in a manner that was direct, accessible, and useful. Even now, thirty years later, I can almost hear her voice, calmly and quietly telling me who was who: "That man is named Obi Wan Kenobi, and he wants to take Luke Skywalker to rescue the Princess." With a little more explication, I caught on. By the time Luke, Obi Wan, and the droids got to the cantina I was hooked, and by the time the X-wing fighters locked "S-foils in attack position," I was entranced. To my nine-year-old mind, Star Wars was the most amazing thing in the world, in the galaxy! We left the theatre, it was still daylight, and I talked nonstop. Did she know how amazing that movie was? Did she know? As I recall, my mother thought it was pretty cool, but it was just a movie, after all.


That next year, from summer 1977 through most of 1978, I thought about Star Wars and little else. I collected the cards, from the "blue series" on up. I bought the comic books. I practiced drawing the ships. I memorized trivia, back when the Star Wars "universe" was thankfully limited to the film and the novelization. I even collected a few "action figures." I awaited the Star Wars Holiday Special and maintained my love for the movie despite the indisputable suckiness of the show. I tore through Alan Dean Foster's Splinter in the Mind's Eye, even though the first "sequel" to Star Wars was kind of lame. And I debated with my friends the finer points of Star Wars lore. Somehow we knew even then that Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader had fought a lightsaber duel over a molten lava pit years before Luke Skywalker had even been born. I heard somewhere that George Lucas envisioned nine movies, maybe even twelve, and I thought: I can hardly wait for the next one, and that movie won't come out for years. I had never heard of "Episode IV: A New Hope," I had no problem with the fact that Han shot first in the cantina. I had no clue who Jar Jar Binks was. When Star Wars passed the $100 million mark, months after its first release, I told all my friends and even their parents. The movie was not just some corporate investment or media spectacle; it was a part of my identity.

Three decades have passed, and I have a daughter of my own. She is now seventeen, and she has lots of interests: writing, acting, and hanging out with her friends. But Star Wars has always been in her life. She can recite dialogue and compete in trivia contests. She never obsessed about the movie like her old man, but she has fought lightsaber duels with me. There is no doubt: "The force is strong with this one." So, we look forward to May 25th, 2007. We will watch a DVD depicting the original theater version of Star Wars, and we will transport ourselves back to 1977. We'll make popcorn and eat hot dogs, we'll talk as loudly in our "home theater" as we like.

We'll cheer a story we've seen collectively hundreds of times. We'll laugh when the storm trooper bumps his head on the door. We'll cheer when Han blasts Greedo like the bad-ass pirate he is. We'll mock Luke when he whines about going to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters. We'll celebrate a piece of pop culture that meant so much more to millions of people than just a movie. And I'll think for a moment about my Mom, who died last December. When she took me to see Star Wars on that hot summer day, she could hardly imagine how much it would mean to me. I never could quite explain it. But when I look back on one the most significant days of my life, I will always think about a moment in which a woman named Sandra guided me on my first steps, as Obi Wan did for Luke, into a larger world.

7 comments:

Zaki said...

Hi Andy -

Wow, this was really terrific. It's funny, because I was born two years after STAR WARS hit, I've never had the thrill of "discovery" that you mention here.

For me, STAR WARS always was. How could it be otherwise, right? It's extraordinary to think that it's been around for thirty years...or that the re-releases came out TEN years ago! Yikes!

I have to admit, as a new dad, one of the things I'm most looking forward to is the day he's old enough to watch STAR WARS and, as you say, take his first steps into a larger world.

Thanks again for this wonderful entry...and also for the link!

John said...

Andy,

a. Welcome to blogging! I am afraid I have been a less than stellar blogger for the past year or two, but I look forward to reading your stuff.

b. What an excellent post!

I particularly love the descriptions of you and your mom and having to choose between movies. I remember not having a lot as a kid, and what seem like the smallest decisions now - from which movies to see to which slurpie to buy at the gas station - seemed huge, precisely because you didn't know when the opportunity would come again. Somehow, even though I had less at the time, the memories I have of the things I did have are stronger.

Star Wars is such an interesting cultural phenomena to me, and the amazing thing, I think, it that it has withstood the test of time. When I think of the truly big movies that I have experienced (LOTR, Titanic, Jurassic Park, etc.) none has either impacted me or the culture in quite the same way. Here's hoping we get a few more experiences like this from filmmakers sometime soon.

-JC

Swampboy said...

I, too, like Andy grew up in the Countryside area. Saw the movie in the same theater, and recall a similar moving experience. However, in 1977, I was less concerned with Star Wars, and more concerned with my GI Joes. You see, good and evil might have been battling it out in space -- but, my dudes were about to kidnap Barbie from her high-rise penthouse pad, and lay waste on that communist named KEN.

Still, Star Wars shadow has grown in my psyche over the years. In fact, it has assumed a much larger position in my pop-culture neural nets than GI Joe. Personally, my adult critique of Star Wars is more significant than that of my youth. A classic? Oh for sure. A classic for the times? You bet.

Chip said...

I was five when Star Wars came out and we saw it at the "Twin Drive In"- I believe in Scarborough Maine. It gets dark late in the summer, so this was a pretty late show- especially considering it was preceded by a three stooges marathon. I had not yet been exposed to the stooges and it would be years before I would come to appreciate their violent buffoonary. Across the way- where I could see, but not hear- I watched an animated Disney flick on another screen- I think it might have been an encore showing of The Jungle Book. If I wasn't asleep before the movie started- I was not long after. I don't remember when I actually saw it- but I collected the figures- and I saw the next two chapters eagerly and wide awake.

Josh said...

I very much enjoyed reading your post about Star Wars and your mother.

I was twelve in '77, and while I was caught between my parents' bitter divorce, it still was the coolest time to be a kid! I lived with my mom, and went to dad's on weekends, which meant I got to hang around my older cousins--wild kids about 4-6 years older than me! They had exposed me to much of the pop culture that I would come to embrace.
When one of them told me about STAR WARS, I knew I had to see it. We were both Sci-Fi nuts who loved Lost in Space, loved Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Logan's Run.

I first walked into a theatre to see the film when it premiered in June, 1977, at the 41st Avenue Playhouse, on 41st Avenue in Capitola, California. I really had no idea what to expect, not having seen any of the trailers or teasers airing about that time. Anyway, STAR WARS had me completely entranced! Lightsabers, and how to acquire one was all-consuming; Vader was the baddest thing ever, the Obi-Wan/Vader duel was heart-stopping, and the final battle sequence always ended too soon! I was one of the boys who dragged his parents with him some 145-150 times to experience it.

Up to that point Star Trek was the best thing going, and we had gone to a couple of great conventions in San Jose just prior to STAR WARS' release. But SW was just something else entirely! I would compare it to a whirlwind romance...

Growing up in the 1970s was great for pop culture in general. I loved the old horror films Bob Wilkins showed every weekend on CREATURE FEATURES (KTVU-Oakland); in 1975 there was a real classic horror renaissance happening! Even now I still have a photo book of Universal's FRANKENSTEIN (1932) which depicts every scene of the film. I remember so clearly the day I went to a Soquel bookstore to buy it! Every chance I had, I would take the bus to downtown Santa Cruz to hang out at Atlantis Fantasy World, and a long-defunct Record Factory! Atlantis was (and is) mainly a comic book store, but they had some great magazines and books about horror films.

Of course, probably the best thing about the '70s was the video revolution--the era of the VCR and home video had dawned. You no longer had to go to the library or special order an 8 or 16mm film and run it through a projector, to watch a movie! Copious titles had come to abound! While I often pine for the days of 8mm film snippets, it is hard to imagine life without a VCR!!!

Josh said...

I very much enjoyed reading your post about Star Wars and your mother.

I was twelve in '77, and while I was caught between my parents' bitter divorce, it still was the coolest time to be a kid! I lived with my mom, and went to dad's on weekends, which meant I got to hang around my older cousins--wild kids about 4-6 years older than me! They had exposed me to much of the pop culture that I would come to embrace.
When one of them told me about STAR WARS, I knew I had to see it. We were both Sci-Fi nuts who loved Lost in Space, loved Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Logan's Run.

I first walked into a theatre to see the film when it premiered in June, 1977, at the 41st Avenue Playhouse, on 41st Avenue in Capitola, California. I really had no idea what to expect, not having seen any of the trailers or teasers airing about that time. Anyway, STAR WARS had me completely entranced! Lightsabers, and how to acquire one was all-consuming; Vader was the baddest thing ever, the Obi-Wan/Vader duel was heart-stopping, and the final battle sequence always ended too soon! I was one of the boys who dragged his parents with him some 145-150 times to experience it.

Up to that point Star Trek was the best thing going, and we had gone to a couple of great conventions in San Jose just prior to STAR WARS' release. But SW was just something else entirely! I would compare it to a whirlwind romance...

Growing up in the 1970s was great for pop culture in general. I loved the old horror films Bob Wilkins showed every weekend on CREATURE FEATURES (KTVU-Oakland); in 1975 there was a real classic horror renaissance happening! Even now I still have a photo book of Universal's FRANKENSTEIN (1932) which depicts every scene of the film. I remember so clearly the day I went to a Soquel bookstore to buy it! Every chance I had, I would take the bus to downtown Santa Cruz to hang out at Atlantis Fantasy World, and a long-defunct Record Factory! Atlantis was (and is) mainly a comic book store, but they had some great magazines and books about horror films.

Of course, probably the best thing about the '70s was the video revolution--the era of the VCR and home video had dawned. You no longer had to go to the library or special order an 8 or 16mm film and run it through a projector, to watch a movie! Copious titles had come to abound! While I often pine for the days of 8mm film snippets, it is hard to imagine life without a VCR!!!

Andrew Wood said...

Thanks so much for your post, Josh. I enjoyed the references to other 70s-era sci-fi...

Also, I dig your blog. I certainly will return often.

"An Evening of Creature Features" looks like a blast!