Tuesday, May 25, 2010

'Star Wars' and Me

For some reason, the nation has latched onto May 4th as "Star Wars Day," the forced, lispy association between "May the Force..." and "May Fourth" being the main stretch. Not buying it, not for a "parsec."* "Star Wars Day" is May 26th—the day it opened in 1977, with little fanfare and low expectations, at a handful of theaters (many of them forced to show it) across the country.

I remember it clearly. I was a junior in college, and at the time I was doing reviews for the college radio station, KCMU, on the weekly student union film series and broadcast on a whopping 10 watts of power. My first glimpse of
Star Wars was a preview attached to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the copy of which was suffering from having the sound swapped out on two of the reels. That preview had no music by John Williams playing underneath it, but a non-descript tension piece. It had few FX scenes, but scenes of the robots, Darth Vader, some Tatooine shots, and the rope-swing across the Death Star chasm.

I was intrigued by it, but I'd been following the career of George Lucas with high expectations since seeing his first film, THX-1138, in the theater (it was the bottom-half of a double-bill with the lackluster Soylent Green). It's odd sociological look at a neutered futuristic society, told in an immersing, non-linear manner, intrigued me. This was intelligent science-fiction on a shoe-string budget where the special effects were ideas rather than matte paintings and super-imposed shots. It's ingenious use of sound inspired me to enter the field of audio post-production which would dominate my life for the next 20 years. Lucas' subsequent film, American Graffiti, also told a story of heroic empowerment seeking a better way of life, but in the milieu of a low-budget high-school film, about a last Summer night where the majority of teens cruised an endless loop of city-streets, symbolizing their own townie instincts—endlessly circling the same comfortable known patterns of their lives. Only one character realizes that to advance, he must escape and leave his past behind.

So, as I say, I was looking forward to it, however odd-looking and "
Wizard of Oz-ish" it looked in the previews.

I wish I could communicate to younger readers what a world before Star Wars was like and how the movie was a game-changer. In one film, Lucas opened up the commercial potential of a space fantasy, while at the same time narrowing the expectations for a film devoting itself to speculative fiction. The ideas took a back-seat to the visual aspects of the story, and subsequent films carried a similar tall-tale aspect that harkened back to the past, rather than imagining the future. Star Wars made more films in the genre viable in the marketplace, and science-fiction less cultish, while also limiting the template. The genre tilted to space-gun swashbucklers that straddled both past and future.

But, there had been nothing with such a flair for the beaten down-exotic: no robots with chemical formula names, the determined combination of fairy tale and sci-fi, wizards of arcane powers, the polyglot of exotic alien life-forms not limited to bi-peds, or the editorial (the way the Death-Star hatches zoomed open and shut) and sonic flourishes (a main character who only communicated through electronic chirps). Oh, one or two of these things might have showed up in a past movie, but Star Wars did something odd every few seconds, and paced it like a long compilation of a D-movie serial. That ingenuity is missing from most modern sci-fi films, where the FX dazzle the eye while the mind goes blank.

But, I put it on my "to-do" list and let a few folks know of my interest and shared what little knowledge I had of it, gleaned from some non-specific articles in "Starlog" magazine. One of my fellow disc-jockeys went to an opening day matinee and came back gob-smacked. He returned to the radio station and babbled at whoever would listen about the creatures, the ships, the fire-fights, the crazy "to-infinity-and-beyond" prologue scroll. It was all "too much information." I got on the phone and called my clutch of high-school buddies. "I'm going to see Star Wars tomorrow at noon. I'm going to be there to stand in line at 10 am and hold places. If you want to see it, find me in line, but I don't think you want to miss this."

The next day, waiting-book in hand, I was among a nerdly few who stood in line at that hour, and, one by one, my friends showed up, and the line grew geometrically as the time to open the theater doors approached until it stretched around the block, and, incredibly, started to form a line for the
next showing. The obsession had already begun, spurred by glowing reviews in the newspaper and a lengthy article in Time Magazine. And the audience I attended it with loved it—the film had an extended run for more than a year.

I knew the thing was going to be a ride with its first bravura shot—one of the ballsiest to announce just what its intentions were: panning down from the disappearing chapter head, its fanfarish opening fading to a discrete twinkling as we contemplate the stars, the view descends and narrows its scope while expanding its horizons—taking in a floating moon and then settling on a frame-defining planet's edge. Then a sleek ship zooms over our heads into view with tracing laser blasts flashing from it and towards it, causing flashes of damage. Then, the pursuing ship defines the top of the frame—first a wedge of a bristling ship that expands and expands and expands, with ever-more complex details including a large empty bay. It grows to impossible proportions until finally the vast nozzles of its engines blue-glow into frame, accompanied by the sound of crackling plasma-sounds that pierce the thudding hunter's drums of John Williams' martial music with a romantic's flourish. The intention is to dazzle, and to change our perspective of what is possible in this techno-fairy tale, filled to bursting with arcana, culled from the rich history of cinema and make-believe.

It flew by, with dozens of fun little touches: the blue specters of holograms (merely realized by filming
Carrie Fisher's lines from a variety of angles on low-res video screens—she can still remember that speech), the bones of a dinosaurish creature on the crest of a Tatooine dune while Williams' score recalls Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which served as the backdrop for the dinosaur segment of Disney's Fantasia, the hob-goblin Jawas-used "droid" salesmen of the desert, the varieties of robots and aliens, the casual conversations of the stormtroopers, one denizen of Mos Eisley space-port ("You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy") represented by stork-legs that brush by the camera (you never see the whole creature, just a suggestion of it), Alec Guinness' inscrutable wizard, Han firing first and proving his worth by diving out of the Sun like a WWI Ace, the nothing-made-of-it reaction shots between the scruffy Chewbacca and Princess Leia, the dangerous sparking sizzle of whooping light-sabers, the nerve-wracking go-for-broke flights through the trenches of the Death Star, the initial dives into those trenches done with a Wellesian slight of hand, transitioning from long model-shot to three-dimensional close-up by a cut disguised as a blast of laser-fire.

It was stunning. I exited the theater with a stupid kid's smile on my face, the main thought in my head being just wanting to get back in line to see it again...right now. The huge line of people, though, was daunting. An impatient yuppie who'd been in line since I'd entered the theater had to ask me: "How was it? Is it any good?"

I babbled: "Wow...I just...it's absolutely...amazing...it's...it's...it's"

He looked at me piteously. "Are you high?" the guy asked.

Truth is, I was. As high as any really good, ingenious film can make me (and still can).

I dragged friends, family, girlfriends to see it just to see what their reactions would be—I wanted to see their sense of wonder, if there was any. But I also wanted to see it again and again to see if I'd missed anything (telling answer—Nope, only its flaws). And the memory of that Summer day lingers on, like a particularly joyful memory, a force that informed my life.

May the Force (or Something Like it) Be with You. Always.

(And I still have that poster that's perching up there at the top of this article).

* One of my favorite stories about "Star Wars" involves Carl Sagan going on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and railing about the inaccuracies of "Star Wars." It was the usual stuff—no sound or turning ship flight-paths in space, distance between systems, yadda yadda yoda. But one thing really irked Sagan: "they've got one guy who said he made a trip in parsecs—a parsec isn't a measure of time, it's distance!" This, in turn, really irked Lucas. He knew that. The line was there to show that Solo's not too good with technical details and a bit of a blow-hard—hence Obi-Wan Kenobi's pitying reaction to him saying it. In space, no one can hear you grind your teeth in frustration.


The Mad Hatter said...

I'd give my left arm to have been a part of this phenomenon from the get-go (I wasn't around just yet).

Know what the funny thing is - you mention the movie-going world before SAR WARS (BS?), and in some ways I think I miss that business model.

Word of mouth had a chance to stoke a film...rather than just letting the Hollywood machine work us into a fever pitch that dies off 6pm Sunday of opening weekend.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Actually, blame "Jaws." It started the phenomenon of "wide-release" (there was so much demand for it because it was a best-selling book).

Nope. In the "old days" movies opened in one or two theaters as solo presentations in town, then when business for that died off, they'd go to the smaller suburban theaters for a "second run," usually as part of a double-bill. Very special "prestige" movies were "roadshow" presentations, with intermissions, overture and ent'acte music. This has all been replaced by "wide-release" and video sales, all emblematic of the short-sighted "get-rich-quick" philosophy we live under these days.

"Word of Mouth" only works if the movie is "good" (See? That's a problem), and if it piques the interests of the ticket-buyers. Now the model is to get the film in as many places as possible to get as much money before anyone's the wiser. Hence the emphasis on revenue from opening weekend/day/12am screenings, etc.

I'm glad this intrigued you. I knew I was going to have to set up the way movies were before "Star Wars" so many movies I see today (and "Prince of Persia" coming up is a prime example) hue to its template. You can blame Lucas, but he was just trying to make something fun of all the things he liked when he was 13--there always were these types of movies (and he was thinking precisely of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials). It's just not many movies were being of that pure escapist type. Now, it's hard to get back to reality.

Walaka said...

I was there for this phenomenon and you capture the mood very well. Thanks.

I will quibble with one thing, not yours: I call shenanigans on Lucas saying that Solo's misuse of the word "parsec" was deliberate and "there to show that Solo's not too good with technical details." That's like having a driver say he once made the Seattle to Spokane run in two-and-a-half miles. That's not bad with details, that's imbecilic.

Yojimbo_5 said...

"Imbecilic" is, I think, part of Han Solo's make-up, however beloved a character he may be.

The withering shot of Alec Guinness after he says it has always been there...from day one. Or day two (I didn't see it day one).

That USED to be Lucas' answer(Lucas also used to say there would be three sequels as well as prequels, now he denies it, but it was in that first Rolling Stone interview). Now, on the Ep IV DVD commentary, he says it's supposed to be a measure of distance, by way of folding space through hyperspace. That would be fine if the information wasn't after the line "Fast ship?!"

I still think Han Solo is an imbecile--the running after the stormtrooper s screaming at the top of his lungs being a prime example.

The Floating Red Couch said...

RE: The parsec--

I still blame Lucas for that gaffe: if it's meant to be a joke and no one gets it, doesn't the fault lie with the person that's telling the joke?

Yojimbo_5 said...

NO! And on this point, I am quite adamant.

I remember sitting at a '70's showing of "Diamonds Are Forever."
And at one point, Bond is in LAX going through customs--he and Tiffany Case have smuggled a large quantity of diamonds in the body of the guy Bond is impersonating, Peter Franks. The CIA is there at Customs undercover, and Felix Leiter is inspecting the body in the coffin, and he remarks" I give up. I know the diamonds are here somewhere, but where?" Bond (Connery) leans over and says "Alimentary, Dr. Leiter."

I was the only one in the audience to laugh.

Now, its one thing to write for your intended audience--that's a technical writing axiom. But to dumb something down in case somebody doesn't "get" it? You'd be sentencing the world to nothing but "Ernest Saves Christmas" movies.

Look, the line provides information about both the characters of Han Solo and Obi Wan Kenobi in an off-kilter, interesting way--something that first "Star Wars" did a lot. There were so many things the 20th "suits" wanted to change on SW to make it more "accessible" that the movie would have been reduced to "Logan's Run," if they'd got their way (One incident at a 20th screening involved the wife of a 20th Fox exec berating Lucas that the only way to "save" "Star Wars" was to make C-3PO's mouth move...because SHE couldn't figure out when he was talking and it wasn't somebody else.

C'mon, "Float," if someone doesn't "get" something, it's their job to smarten up (or grow up...that happens a lot with movies I saw as a kid that I didn't understand--hell, that happened with "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons!) and "get with the program." Or else everything will be reduced to the cinematic equivalent of "gruel."

Nobody, not film-makers, not you and not me, should be aiming for the lowest common denominator.

No. Absolutely not.