Monday, May 7, 2007
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.