Monday, May 21, 2007

A Long Time Ago...

I am what you might call a Star Wars purist. When I say that, I want you to know exactly what I mean. When I saw Star Wars for the first time at the impressionable age of 12, it was not Episode IV of anything and it most certainly was not subtitled, “A New Hope.”

My aunt told me in the summer of 1977 that there was a great new movie out that she thought I would be interested to see, so I went along. My father and I had just completed our move to Mesick, Michigan and I was about to start 7th grade in a school I had left when I was in elementary. Little League was over, and it was a few weeks before school was to start, and I had spent the better part of a week (or a year, adjusted for 12-year old inflation) just sitting around. So, we went. I didn’t know that the movie was Star Wars.

I was one of those kids who always read books of movies, so I could replay it in my head. You have to remember that back then there were no VCRs or DVD players. If you were going to relive a movie, you had to go to the theater and see it again. I had bought the novelization of Star Wars before the movie had even come out. I tried not to read it before I saw the movie, but I just couldn’t resist. I didn’t think much of the writing; “Servomotors whined in protest” was a phrase that appeared no less than three times in Alan Dean Foster’s book, credited to George Lucas. The story, though, sounded too good to be true. It was like a fairy tale told in space.

I had seen the movie trailer; I had seen a clip from the movie on the Today Show. You know, back when Tom Brokaw was the host along with Jane Pauley. Those were the days.

When we got to the theater, and I stopped shaking in anticipation, we found out that the movie had already started and was about an hour in. My aunt asked me what I wanted to do, and I suggested that we just go in. She had already seen it and I had already read the book. I knew what was going to happen, or so I thought. As we sat down with our popcorn I was hypnotized. It was during the trash compactor scene, when Han fires his blaster, only to watch it ricochet inside the magnetically sealed walls. I had never seen an effect like that! I was used to slow-moving animated phaser beams from Star Trek reruns. I think my jaw dropped into my popcorn.

The movie just got better and better as it went, and the space battle and lightsaber duel really got my attention. When it was over, we stayed and watched it again. I would have watched it a third time, but we had to get home. I spent an hour trying to describe the movie and its effects to my grandparents, who humored me by watching me try to mime the lightsaber duel. When my dad got home, I told him we had to go see it right away. We saw it at the nearby drive-in the next weekend. When I started school, I wore a blue t-shirt that read, “May the Force Be With You.”

All of that said, I thought the sequels got weaker as they went. I know where I was 26 years ago today. I was at the theater seeing ‘The Empire Strikes Back” at age 15. When we walked out of the theater, I was still in shock, not believing that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. I couldn’t believe that Obi-Wan Kenobi had lied to Luke. Yes, I know it’s true “from a certain point of view.” Poodoo, I say. From that certain point of view, Darth Vader was a title and a name, not a name and a name. That’s why Obi-Wan called him “Darth” in Star Wars, and not Vader, right? Remember the line, “Only a master of evil, Darth.” It was his first name, for crying out loud!! I saw Return of the Jedi the week after I graduated from high school. It was literally the first movie that I attended myself. I was working nights, so I went to a matinee. I saw it twice more the same week, just for the lightsaber fights. By that time, I was starting to see the weakness of the plots, but I didn’t care.

There are so many contradictions in the sequels and prequels that followed Star Wars that I can hardly watch the first one anymore without catching them in a continuity error in one of the subsequently made movies. I’m sure you can scour a message board somewhere and find a list longer than my arm. That’s not what I’m about.

I still recall the effect that the movie had on me at that time. I still have a movie magazine that covered Star Wars, 2001, and Forbidden Planet, arguably the best sci-fi (or SF, as Starlog magazine insisted it be called) movies of the past three decades. I became a regular reader of Starlog, and scanned the newspapers every day for hints of a sequel or a TV series. Logan’s Run had just been picked up as a series, so why not Star Wars, right? Well, Logan’s Run didn’t turn out to be very good as a series, so it’s probably just as well. I bought the MAD magazine and Cracked parodies. I bought trading cards and put them in story order. I would play Meco’s Star Wars disco record whenever I saw it in a jukebox. I may have become the slightest bit obsessive. Those who know me are not shocked to read this, I’m sure. The next year, when Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye came out, I was all over it. Same thing with Han Solo at Star’s End, by Brian Daley. I could not resist anything that had the Star Wars logo on it. I still remember getting the four Star Wars glasses at Burger King. I can still see my dad and myself drinking Coke at the Burger King in front of Cherryland Mall in Traverse City, just so I could get more glasses.

That Christmas, I received a puzzle of this image, which I put together at least five times:

The magic of Star Wars wasn’t the merchandising or the endless inferior sequels and prequels. Star Wars made me interested in film, one of my key interests even today. It introduced me to classical music, with John Williams’s amazing score. You couldn’t avoid hearing a marching band playing it for the next two years whenever and wherever there was a parade. Williams won the Academy Award the next year, when he was up against himself for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I guess it increases your odds when you are two of the five nominees. I joined band, playing baritone and then tuba, the very next year. I discovered radio drama because NPR played the radio serial once a week, complete with the Williams soundtrack and Ben Burtt’s Oscar-winning sound effects.

Star Wars ignited my imagination, leading me to fill page after page of drawings about Luke Skywalker and his friends. I even started doing woodwork in my grandfather’s garage. I built a two-foot long Star Destroyer out of plywood so that my die-cast X-Wing fighter would have something to fight besides TIE fighters. I made lightsabers so that my dad and I could duel. His was red, because evidently red was the color for bad guys. I made a Han Solo blaster, learning how to use the power sander to round the edges of the magazine. I used the belt clip from a tape measure to attach it to my pocket because I didn’t have the low-slung holster rig yet. When I got too old for the toys, I gave them all to my brother and bought him more besides, whenever I got the chance. Even if I was too old for them, I could still buy them for others!

As an adult, I can still appreciate what the film has done not only for me, but for generations of others. My brother-in-law works for Industrial Light and Magic, the company formed to create the special effects for Star Wars, and a few years ago Magi and I got to actually visit Skywalker Ranch in the hills outside San Francisco. It was really a great experience, and Jeremy didn’t stop there. Last year for Christmas he got me a coffee table book about the prequels and had anyone at ILM who was willing, to sign it for me over the parts of the movie that they had worked on. Now that is a cool gift!

Although as a middle school teacher, I am faced every day with kids who are so jaded that they think that Star Wars is lame or too “old school” to be entertaining, I have to explain to them the history of filmmaking and how things changed when Star Wars hit the screens. I just sit back and wonder, though, at what will inspire them because in their world of entertainment, I just don’t see them getting as excited about anything as I got from one simple movie in the lazy summer of 1977.

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