Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Growing Up With Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (and Beyond)

This is the 3rd and last in a series about being a kid in the 70's and 80's and being a part of the generation that was exposed to Star Wars first hand.  All recollections are subjective and are not intended to represent those of the other billion kids who were also around.  For Part 1 about Star Wars click here, for Part 2 about Empire, click here.

My memories about Return of the Jedi come with a lot of "firsts" attached.

It is the first movie I remember anticipating.  The Empire Strikes Back has ended on a cliffhanger, and so it only made sense that from the second we saw the Skywalkers staring off into space and the credits rolled, I was signed up for the third installment.  As I discussed in talking Empire, we moved into speculation.

What you kids have to remember is (a) there was no internet and (b) the sector of the population that obsessed over what movies were coming and when was much smaller back then.  My first inkling that the movie was actually, like, really, really coming was a slide that appeared before some other movie my mom took us to.  I don't think it said Revenge of the Jedi, I just processed that - yes, we were finally getting a 3rd movie.  But the slide was really bland - just a title and a picture of a greenish planet, if memory serves.

After that, I do believe images began to trickle out in magazines and on television.

It was also the first movie I spoiled for myself.

I'm sure kids still have book orders through school.  Back in the 1980's, one thing that the Karebear was no skinflint about was our Troll book order budget.  Mom never had a problem signing off on pretty much whatever we said we wanted through those book order sheets.  It didn't hurt, later, when she was a full time teacher again (I think I was in 2nd grade?  I'll have to check), that she was able to recycle our books for her classroom as she taught elementary school reading for decades.

Point being - I ordered the Return of the Jedi illustrated storybook and it showed up in my classroom on the same day we had tickets to go see Jedi (more on this in a moment).  So, suddenly I had access to dozens of images from the film and the story of the very movie I was going to see.  When no one was looking, I held the book on my lap and read about half of it in school.  I told myself "self, you're going to see this movie tonight.  You might want to hold off."  But in a move that will not surprise either Jamie or my brother - I cracked and wound up spending the bus ride home reading the rest of the book.

So, I had this weird emotional experience of wrapping up the story of Return of the Jedi - and, potentially the last Star wars thing ever.  I had spoiled the movie for myself.  But, I also felt I couldn't tell anyone.  In fact, I denied having had read the book yet when asked.  And I think I was in college before I admitted to anyone how I'd ruined the movie for myself.

The other first was that I didn't know you could buy movie tickets early in the day for a later show.  We went with some neighbors who were hip to such extravagances and had kids I played Star Wars figures with.  Their dad was the one who openly drank and good-naturedly referred to Star Wars as "That Yoda shit", and I still hold him in a special place in my heart.

And, you know, I kind of know Return of the Jedi is not as solid as Empire, but it still works okay.

That whole opening bit in Jabba's Palace was a first as well.  Our heroes are outnumbered, be-leaguered, things look pretty bad.  Princess Leia does the awesome disguise thing, pulls a thermal detonator.  And if you've only ever seen the post-97 version of Return of the Jedi, I kind of pity you, because they made the Max Rebo band infinitely dumber than it felt when it was just puppets singing "Lapti Nek" (which I had on a 45 single with "Ewok Celebration"").

It's probably best not to talk about Princess Leia and her gold bikini.  I don't know what you people expect out of me.  I'm not made of stone.

Thank to my covert reading I knew, of course, what the movie held for our heroes and villains, but I will also say, the age-appropriate picture-book I had to read may not have done all of Return of the Jedi justice.  There is a lot of viscerally exciting stuff in Jedi, from speeder bike chases to Luke springing off a plank and catching a lightsaber mid-air (still, maybe, one of the coolest sequences in Star Wars, people), to the absolutely mind-bending space battle outside the Death Star II.  I mean, holy cats, is Lando cool in that or what?

Again, the movie was dealing in heavy family issues.  Despite my gasps of disbelief, Vader was, in fact, Luke's father.  And so that final light saber battle (beautifully shot and imagined) earned every bit of that heavy choral score.  And while it may have seemed off in scale to have Han and Leia leading the charge against the shield bunker, the ground war scene worked for me.  Heck, I was pretty well into high school before someone pointed out to me how goofy the Ewoks were, and I took a minute to process the idea and have never looked at them the same way since (Thanks, Marshall).

You don't see many movies with an ending as big as the one in Return of the Jedi.  I suppose the Lord of the Rings movies work on the same scale, in their way, but the multitude of fronts of battle, the actually well managed pacing as the tides turn back and forth...  yeah, it's a big comic book actioner, but shut up.  That's what it's supposed to be (or didn't you notice the mystic space knights and the 8' furry guy?).

And then it was over.

I had no expectation for more Star Wars, and the fact I retain memories of walking across the parking lot with my folks and Jason after the movie says something.  I knew it was done.  It was sort of like the silence you get after leaving a concert.  Your ears are ringing to remind you of what just finished.

And, here, I'll also admit something - Jason is a pretty good brother.  He noticed I was a bit bent out of shape about something, and, yeah, we agreed it was a bummer there were no immediate plans for additional movies.  But he then said "you know that one Ewok you thought died?  I saw him at the end.  He was okay."  Somehow Jason had actually figured out that after like, 10,000 on screen deaths in the movie, I'd seen one that bothered me a bit, and he knew which one, and how to fix it.  Apparently an anonymous Ewok getting blown up bugged me more than Vader getting turned into a rump roast.

Thanks, man.  You're a mensch.

But, yeah.  Lucas has said he wasn't making any more immediately, and as he'd do and say over the years, he kind of wanted Star Wars on TV despite the way the Holiday Special turned out (and by that, I mean @#$%ing awesome).  And with no Episodes VII - IX on the drawing board, I saw no reason to expect more.

I mean, there was a time and place where the shareholders didn't keep smacking the table insisting on "more of same" in order to make more money.  We knew that maybe one day Lucas might kinda return to Star Wars, but when he did, the side projects always felt so off, so weird.  I mean, did you see the Ewok live action TV specials?  And I may have had one of the warmest receptions to the Droids cartoon of anyone I knew, and I still thought it sucked.  Plus, why was I watching Star Wars about the Droids of all characters?  At least the Ewoks cartoon had some chance to not be a sitcom about a bickering old couple.

And folks my age will talk about it - but Star Wars really did end.  It became a thing people kind of forgot about and moved on, and even as Star Trek got some legs under it as a TV and movie franchise again, you could maybe find Star Wars comics and toys on the shelf, but even that didn't last.

 I'll be honest.  I didn't really want that many Return of the Jedi toys.  Just as Kenner worked out a lot of its sculpting issues and was making nicer figures that even partially resembled the characters, the only ones I remember feeling like pursuing were the Ewok toys and Luke in his new outfit (complete with a cloak made of fabric!).  They put out Imperial Shuttles and Rancors and the whole nine yards, but it felt weird.  Star Wars was over with.  To some extent, it felt the same way to look at that new Luke as it does looking at Christmas wrapping paper on December 26th.  You kind of get it, but the overriding thrill of the ride is gone.

Also, US toy manufacturers were now playing hard ball with Kenner.  I could get more Star Wars stuff or I could check out this rad new toyline called G.I. Joe, or He-Man.  And not too much later, I stumbled onto Star Trek at 5:00 every weekday on KBVO, our local UHF channel.  Also, sports.  And role-playing games.  And, holy shit... comics!  What the hell is an X-Man?

I didn't suddenly not-like Star Wars.  I was just going to go look at these other things now.  Star Wars was one of many things.

Some people claim it became a "nerd" thing, but I'm not sure if that's true.  It did become a "boy" thing, if it wasn't always already.  Young women of 2015 won't believe this, but it's true.  Even the past 24 hours my Facebook has had a few folks raising their hands saying "I saw Star Wars back in the 80's.  Are people really this excited?"*

I don't remember exactly how we caught the movies after a while.  They didn't run on cable, and I can't really remember seeing them at the video store for rent, which seems weird.  Eventually Jason taped all of them off TV one way or another, and so starting when I was in 7th grade or so, it seems we started re-engaging with Star Wars.   It was all about names of characters, vehicles, locations... being able to quote along with the movie.  And we started watching the movies over and over again.  Jason had also landed the recently released Star Wars Role-Playing Game, which was as much fun to look at stats and read up on trivia as anything else (I don't remember actually playing the game itself, but we did).

But, for the most part, while Star Wars remained a cultural touchstone, it wasn't unique as such in a media landscape with three TV networks.  And it receded, as things tend to do when they're no longer discussed quite so much.

My sophomore year of high school I moved away from Austin to Houston, but Austin's Paramount Theater had started doing these Star Wars weekends in my absence.  They'd start by showing the trilogy on Friday evening, and then repeat them all weekend.  So, you could walk in and out, and not have to sit through three movies if you didn't feel like it.

I don't remember if we saw Episode IV or not, but I specifically remember seeing Empire Strikes Back, because when Han said "I know" to Leia, the place just about tore itself apart.  My point is - this was the first time to see Star Wars in a crowd since we'd all dispersed, watched the movies by ourselves or with a few others.  But this was the first time I realized "it's not just me and a few of my friends.  This is actually kind of amazing."  And it was.  And remains so.

But this was my first experience of Star Wars as an audience experience, not just kids killing time on an afternoon, and it was eye-opening to realize that not only was I not alone in my affinity for Star Wars-ness, but that I was at the low end of the spectrum when it came to how some of these folks were.

In college we were a herd of Star Wars nerds, a generation of kids entering university who had been raised on Wookies and action figures.  The internet was getting more information out there on message boards and some seriously jenky-looking GeoCities pages.  We wondered if it would be okay to name our kids "Han".  Guys returned breathlessly from dates with bug eyes saying "dude, she's never seen Star Wars", and it was unspoken that she would soon see it and like it, or it was over.  No, really.  (Jamie was very familiar with Star Wars and didn't bat an eye at my posters when we started dating.)

My first day of Film 1 Production, we all went around in a circle and said what movie we saw which was why we were there, and I was at the end of the circle, and as the level of pretension got higher and higher and the names of films got French-er and French-er, I just shrugged and said "I want to make Star Wars.  You know, for kids!"  And got some serious side-eye from my peers that never quite went away.  Why anyone goes to film school and think we should all be making sad-clown movies is beyond me.

In the 90's I was there for the opening show of the oddly disappointing re-releases**, but I saw a lot of guys a bit older than me with their kids, and it was really something to watch those kids walk out of the theater, pick up a stick and immediately turn it into a lightsaber.

I picked up toys with the re-releases and became an adult collector, and then more toys with the release of The Phantom Menace (including the pretty astounding Naboo Cruiser).***  But as the Prequels came along and my interest dissipated, about ten years ago I sold most of what I had to a dealer before I moved out of Phoenix.

We'd always hung onto the Star Wars toys we'd had growing up, but KareBear was one for a tidy room, and so at some point she showed some foresight and packed the toys up and put them in the attic for our kids to play with with one day.  Well, I'm not reproducing and Jason was a little late to the game, so a lot of my toys were gifted to a friend's son, the aptly named "Lucas", when he arrived about five years ago.  I hear that the opening of the Star Wars crate went over quite well.

Oof.  It's dusty up there.  I need to take care of that.

Sadly, only the one Burger King glass survives, but there's that Leia figure who was an acrobat (see Post 1)

All that remains from that collection of figures and toys is now dispersed, and these two pictures are all that remains of the original toys, plus an Ackbar and Princess Leia I picked up along the way.  I've got an X-Wing and Millennium Falcon from Hot Wheels sitting on my desk at work.  Do not cry for me.  I have more than enough other stuff cluttering my house, as you might guess from the stuff around my Star Wars stuff.

I won't get into the Prequels, but I do find the generational gap interesting.  I'll find the odd person my age or older who likes the Prequels, but it's mostly folks at least 10 or more years younger who have the Prequels as "their" Star Wars.  And it throws all of this into a bit of perspective.  I don't know what I would have thought of Star Wars in 1977 if I hadn't been 2 years old.   I don't think there are many people who were 40 who went all that crazy for it, and surely there were many who saw it as the recycled Flash Gordon/ Buck Rogers pastiche it was and dismissed it as old hat.  Find a nerdy octogenarian and ask them, I suppose.  I mean, I don't know how you get around the clunky plots and terrible acting of the Prequels, but a lot of what I liked growing up is pretty hokey, too, Knight Rider.

Right now Star Wars: The Force Awakens is tracking in the mid-90's on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty damn impressive.  For the first time since getting crushed by Phantom Menace and then, twenty minutes into Attack of the Clones, when you realize the ship has not righted itself, I have hope.  I'm ready to put a Return of the Jedi bed spread back on my bed, watch the Millennium Falcon outrun TIE-Fighters, watch X-Wings bear down on Imperial forces, watch lightsabers leap to life in the hands of uncertain young Jedi, and find out I'm still in love with Princess Leia after all these years.

May the Force Be With You, my friends.

*Yes.  Yes, they are.
**You can't say with a straight face that the Han/ Jabba scene in Star Wars didn't make you cringe like crazy.
***say what you will about the rest of Phantom Menace, but those toys and the design of Naboo's fleet was pretty amazing


Matt A. said...

I think you hit the key point for why Jedi didn't have the kind of toy power that Empire had - the story was over, and all the talk over what would happen next didn't happen.

Although, I think another part of what of it was that we had crested that sweet spot age for it. We were at that right age when Empire was released to get all the toys, but Jedi came out when kids' TV was allowed to start being a blatant 22 minute ad. Suddenly, Star Wars had to fight for shelf space.

I had that big theater moment in 91 or 92 when the THX re-release of the original series was shown in Austin. I went to the Great Hills Cinema with some high school friends to see it - they had two showings on one Thursday.

As for a late-aged geek's view of Star Wars, I commuted on the train for a several months, almost always sitting with an older gentleman. He was always reading some weird Sci-Fi novel. One day he started reminiscing on the time he went to see Star Wars when it was first released. He said all of his friends just poo-pooed it as a schlock popcorn film, but this particular gentleman was enamored with it. I also know that my dad really liked it when it came out; I distinctly remember seeing him reading the novelization of Empire. I take that as a sign that most of the older folks who saw Star Wars didn't care for it, but there was that small group of Sci-Fi geeks to loved it.

Stuart said...

Return of the Jedi was the first Star Wars film I saw in theatres. I wasn't spoiled on it, but I had seen a fews scenes from the Burger King collectible glasses my dad picked up for me. He'd seen the movie before I did, as I was out of the country on its initial release. But when I visited him that summer, getting to the theater was one of the first orders of business.

It's easy to forget just how HUGE the post-Empire speculation was. Was Vader telling the truth? What about what Obi Wan said? IS EVERYTHING A LIE?? And, yeah, no Internet. So you didn't have filmmakers out there reacting to fan speculation, clarifying things. I remember still feeling like it was up in the air until Yoda confirmed in dialogue.

I didn't experience a post-Jedi ennui, as you describe. Maybe because I didn't realize there wouldn't always be more Star Wars. And there was, to a degree. I played the roleplaying game and read some of the comics and the Timothy Zahn novels. Enjoyed the heck out of Dark Forces. But yeah, it became a pretty specialized nerd thing for a while there.

Anyway, I've really enjoyed these retrospectives. Thanks. :)

The League said...

I forgot to talk about the arrival of the Expanded Universe.

I very much remember picking up the first book at a mall bookshop, looking at the cover, reading the description on the back, and saying "there is no way in hell this is the movie Lucas would make as a sequel" (though why i thought that, I do not know), and I never looked back. Somehow I was aware that when and if there was new Star Wars, all of this was going out the window, and I was genuinely surprised when I mentioned this to people, and they would insist "but Lucas approved the books himself". And I would just imagine Lucas' assistant reading him the synopsis, then him seeing what percentage he got of the sales and saying "print that baby".

I do feel like I missed out on something because people who like the expanded Universe really liked it, but I could never get jazzed about something I thought was kind of doomed. But I don't have any feeling about the seeming abandonment of that continuity.

It's been very hard for me to get invested in anything like Clone Wars or Rebels, which are both supposedly in continuity, mostly out of a lack of interest in SW in the wake of the Prequels. I did, however, really like the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone wars cartoons. We'll see how I re-engage in this new era. I don't mind being a side-lined viewer who just takes in the movies.

As per Star Wars being a nerd thing - yeah, there was that window in the late 80's to the late 90's. Now I think of it being like sports. It's omni-present, but you can absolutely be someone who just casually enjoys a movie without watching the NFL Draft or checking League-wide injury reports on a daily basis.

The League said...

@matt - I remember your Dad being into Star Wars. That's kind of funny.

And, yeah, I mean, we were in the same 4th grade class, and by then Transformers, He-Man, etc... all had really taken over that shelf space. It was new and weird and cool. And at some point right around then, we were playing role-playing games instead of with toys, so the window closed. It's kind of crazy that Kenner failed so spectacularly to keep the interest or diversify. Now I'm trying to remember if they did the DC Super Powers line which were pretty nice for the time period.

Stuart said...

@Ryan- I know a few folks who followed the Expanded Universe pretty closely and were pretty pissed off when it was all relegated to an alternate timeline. My favorite of the novels is still Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which I don't think counts as Expanded Universe as it was before Empire and contradicts some elements eventually became canon. But it was very much in the spirit of the first film: just another Luke Skywalker adventure, without the heavy-handed destiny and bloodlines and all that stuff that took over eventually. Which was (and kinda still is) what I want out of a Star Wars story.

The League said...

I suspect my background in comics and "what counts and what doesn't" helped me sniff this out when the books arrived. At the time I was vaguely aware that Lucas might start making movies again in the late 90's for legal reasons, but wasn't clear on the details until later. But somehow after the green rabbit of the comics, it sure felt like he wasn't watching those licensed releases all that closely. I do remember the "and more adventures books" around the other characters and almost reading a Lando book (because I always wanted to know more about the guy. He had this rich back story they just glanced off, though I doubt I put it in those terms at the time.). But, you know. Nope. Never got into any of it. And the one Star trek book I read was a novelization of Day of the Dove, which I realized about ten pages in was not an original story, but i read it anyway.