Thursday, December 3, 2015

Growing Up with Star Wars - Let's Talk Episode IV (we just called it "Star Wars", dagnabbit!)

I was born in 1975.  In 1977, my folks dumped off my brother and myself for the evening and went with some friends to see Star Wars.  Legend has it that of the four in the party, only my dad liked the movie.  The Admiral apparently totally fan-boyed (he would have been about 31, then, I guess), told everyone they didn't know what they were talking about, and was proven very, very right by money and history.

As for myself, I tell people that the The Admiral took me to see Star Wars in the theater during its initial run and am surprised how often I'm met with looks of suspicion or people trying to correct me.  "You were 2 years old?" they say.  "I don't think so.  You must have seen the 1980 re-release."  Well, thanks to some iffy judgment calls and my dad's desire to see that movie again in an era before home video, I did, in fact, see Star Wars in the theater during that first run.

My primary memory of that Star Wars screening is getting totally wigged out by the Tusken Raiders.  So, anyone who wants to feel vindicated that Star Wars is too much for kids that age, maybe, maybe not.  Because I also remember the feeling of absolute amazement that exploded all over my life from that moment to today, in its own way.

Aside from a guy with a gaffi stick grunting at Luke, I can't say what else I remember specifically about the screening, because it all bled together with the dozens and dozens of other times I watched Star Wars in the theater in various forms, on very special nights when broadcast TV would show the movie, or if I saw it on VHS or on cable.  Match that with the books, dim retellings on the school bus, playing "Star Wars" with figures, playing with licensed toys and otherwise as we made ourselves into a pack of Han Solos and Chewbaccas, and it was a very Star Wars-ful youth.

My mom, at some point, decided she loved Star Wars, too.  It's something I've seen with my own friends and co-workers as they watch their kids get into something.  But at some point, she was as into building our Star Wars world as much or more than we were.  By the time I was four, the room my brother and I shared had Star Wars wallpaper, we had Star Wars bedspreads, and the floor was littered with 4" versions of the movie characters, their vehicles and "bases", which is what we called all playsets at the time.

Jason, being older, got the more complicated toys.  He had a TIE-Fighter, Millennium Falcon and the Death Star.  I had a Luke and landspeeder.  At some point I got the X-Wing.

When it came to the Kenner toy line, I have a pretty firm memory of being conned into always being in charge of Princess Leia as a kid.  Or, let's be honest, I wanted to play with Princess Leia.  This is probably because I was *in love* with Princess Leia, and I expect I didn't grumble too much when we were assigning roles during action figure time, and a 4" version was as close to Princess Leia as I was likely to get.

We'd long ago lost the figure's pistol to the vacuum cleaner, so, in my world, Princess Leia was an acrobat.  I don't know why that made sense, but I knew that in the course of the movie, she was mostly hanging out on The Death Star, and if you've seen the toy of the Death Star, it's a pretty sweet place for a 4" figure to do jumps and flips.

It wasn't until much, much later that I came to really appreciate the character that Lucas had created.  Leia was nobody's fool, talked smack right to the face of a guy who could strangle her with a hand gesture, and called out Peter Cushing for the weasel he was.  And, upon meeting her would-be rescuer, she immediately insults him, and - realizing their plan sucks, comes up with a new plan of action.  I was quite smitten.

But, again, it was the scale of the film.  It spoiled me for all other movies.  I, then and today, do not understand how Hollywood has never quite understood that part of the attraction to Star Wars is the sheer spectacle.  A a fully realized galaxy where you can have a medal ceremony with hundreds of attendees and moon-sized space stations and battles raging in space while a groundwar goes on below.  Hell, when the Emperor shows up in Jedi, it's in the hangar of a Death Star filled with hundreds of troops.  It could be a throw-away scene, but everything about that scene is amazing.

Yeah, at it's core, Star Wars works as a family drama, but the backdrop of the movie was and is unlike almost anything else.  In a weird way, one of the few movies to understand this scale was Superman: The Movie, that had "epic sweep" in the direction, but the earth-bound nature of the film could only take it so far.

CGI has given Hollywood the tools to work with, but it seems only the combination of WETA, Peter Jackson and JRR Tolkein's text could come close to creating that sense of world building in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Somehow other attempts fall flat or just can't build those worlds in quite the same way.

The design is astounding, from Imperial corridors (maybe the most recognizable architecture to anyone my age), to Star Destroyers and the used-future aesthetic of the Falcon and Rebel bases.  Everything has a history, from whatever that structure is on Yavin IV to Luke's moisture farm.  And it's all really on screen, without the sheen of a Thomas Kinkaide painting giving away the artificial nature of the enterprise.  It's astounding what paint, light and matte paintings accomplished.

I include that idea of an implied history in this weird religion/ martial art the old hermit keeps talking about, and a past just out of reach and irretrievable.  In a similar vein, Lord of the Rings hangs on a past we're not meant to see, but which is crumbling all around our heroes now.  And, this is probably sacrilege, but the Jedi worked better as practitioners of a lost art.  Luke's discovery of a lost way had greater weight when it felt like someone uncovering a forgotten past rather than someone quixotically carrying on dressed up as someone who lost a recent war.

The movie became the cultural touchstone for all the generations who could see it.  In 4th grade, my teacher used Star Wars to explain 3-Act story structure to our class because it was the one film he knew we'd all seen multiple times.  Not because we were "nerds" or "geeks", but because if you were our age, that was just true, except for the one kid whose parents insisted The Apple Dumpling Gang was too edgy.

People (rightfully) mock the Star Wars Holiday Special, but in an era of 3 major TV networks, it should tell you something about how popular Star Wars had become and what sort of cultural phenomenon the movie was 2 years later.  Already nobody cares about Avengers: Age of Ultron,*

But even if it wasn't something you remember, like The Muppets with Mark Hamill and the Droids, it was Donny and Marie doing a soft rock number.**  Or a Meco produced disco album.   I cannot begin to guess what my grandfather, born in 1898 on a farm in Finland, thought of Chewbacca suddenly all over TV.

It was really in college that I uncovered the influences on Lucas as Star Wars went from pop phenomenon to something celebrated as a memory to cultural Rosetta Stone, when Lucas was taken up by scholars looking for a mass audience and the re-releases started to hit in the late 90's.  I don't need to rehash any of that for this audience.  If I'd seen Star Wars innumerable times by the end of high school, landing on a dorm floor with guys who brought their own TIE-Fighters with them was probably a good sign, and I think we more or less had the trilogy on repeat and spent too much time pondering the movies.

Later, I did have the poster hanging on my apartment wall when Jamie and I started dating, and it was considered a good sign she didn't turn up her nose at the movie.

Of all the movies, I'm not sure I consider Star Wars the best, but it's the one with the biggest place in my heart, partially because it is all heart, and it's where all of this mess began.  It's remarkable to have this folklore that's now being passed on from generation to generation, that is growing and changing in the way of all living myths.

Plus, Princess Leia.

Coming Soon: We revisit The Empire Strikes Back
In the Meantime:  Feel free to post your own recollections in the comments.  We're current moderating, so be patient.

*we can and will talk about the public's appetite for anticipation and speculation rather than anything like reflection

**we can debate the perfection of Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo at another time


Stuart said...

There was a time when STAR WARS, the movie released in 1977, brought me literally nothing but joy.

I still have a problem calling the first film “Episode IV” or especially “A New Hope.” It was always just STAR WARS to me. Of course, STAR WARS isn’t just one thing anymore, so you have to somehow indicate what you mean. Because I think “A New Hope” is an especially weak title, and out of context most people wouldn’t know what you’re referring to: I usually go with “Episode IV.” But saying “Episode IV” immediately reminds me that the prequels exist and are terrible, so it’s like I can’t even talk about this thing that I love without implicitly acknowledging these other things that have attached themselves like mynocks to its memory and continue to leech from its goodness like nostalgia vampires.

“Episode IV: A New Hope” also immediately reminds me of George Lucas’ revisionism, since the subtitle wasn’t added until the 1981 re-release. So again I’m acknowledging and sort of endorsing the slippery slope that led to the straight-up corruption of our cultural heritage that is the 1997 (and subsequent) Special Editions; the whitewashing of Academy Award-winning special effects that were pasted over with digital mush, the pussification of Han Solo, and all the other changes that play to me now like that scene in Tim Burton’s BATMAN of the Joker casually finger-painting over works of art in a museum. So, yeah. What you even call the thing is loaded with unfortunate connotations and bad feelings.

I actually do not remember a time before I was aware of STAR WARS. It seems like it was always there. Some of my earliest memories of it are watching and re-watching my dad’s VHS tape, which was not store-bought but copied from a rental, at my grandmother’s house. When I was five years old, I asked my parents for a wallpaper pattern in my room featuring Darth Vader and Obi-Wan clashing lightsabers. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but thought it definitely should. I also have a strong memory of playing the LP and cassette tape soundtracks, closing my eyes, and imagining scenes from the film playing out.

Like any kid who grew up in the 80s, I had the Kenner action figures and several of the vehicles. My favorite was the X-Wing. I remember staging multiple battles with Luke vs Vader’s Tie fighter, which had wings that popped off with the push of a button. I remember fixing my eyes on that X-Wing while I was whooshing it around the house so that the background of the ordinary world went out of focus, and I could imagine I was right there with the ship, flying.

Stuart said...

I don’t remember how I learned The Twist and what my reaction was, but I do remember a time when I thought that Old Ben was telling the truth about Vader having “betrayed and murdered” Luke’s father. I’m currently doing my best to hide that particular spoiler from my kids. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’d like them to care about Luke the way I did before they learn the truth. I guess it’s because if it’s always been that way, then it takes something away from Luke’s story. Then there never was a time when STAR WARS was a simple adventure story. It was always family melodrama.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the twist. I think it added to the overall mythos. But, there’s something pure about STAR WARS before all of that. When it was just about a kid who fought the bad guys because that’s what you do. When adventure calls you to a world of spaceships and aliens and laser swords, and you answer the call. You escape the impenetrable fortress, and rescue the princess, and fly straight into impossible odds, because that’s what needs to be done.

Life gets complicated later. You find out the bad guys aren’t some Other, but a lot closer to home. Your allegiances are tested, and your beliefs are shattered. You give up, give in to despair or corruption, and (hopefully) find a way to fight back again. But first there should be that pure desire to go out there and achieve the impossible, for the sake of itself. I guess that’s what STAR WARS, the movie not the multimedia Empire, means to me.

JMD said...

I enjoyed this post; thanks for sharing your thoughts. Perhaps I'm an old curmudgeon, but I simply can't bring myself to call it "Episode IV." I had the join recently of rewatching the original theatrical versions of the original trilogy, and the opening crawl says nothing about an episode or even "A New Hope." When it comes to "Star Wars," I suppose I'm an originalist. Of course, I don't recognize the existence of the prequels, so that makes matters easy.