Saturday, May 24, 2014

Star Wars and Me

37 years ago, tomorrow. Star Wars premiered and changed the space-time continuum of movies forever, for good or ill. *** Here's a look back.

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 25th—the day it opened in 1977, with little fanfare (except for John Williams' bombastic overture) and low expectations, at a handful of theaters (many of them forced to show it in order to get 20th Century Fox's anticipated Christmas movie, The Other Side of Midnight**) 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-FM, 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 hearkened 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 cult-ish, 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 storm-troopers, 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's'''s"

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

Truth is, (from a certain point of view) I was. As high as any really good, ingenious film can make me (and still can).
"Flying through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, boy!"
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).

Carl Sagan was the first to suggest that this was a case of Wookie discrimination.

* 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.

** No, no one remembers it, and, no, I never saw it.

*** Subsequently, I participated in a blog meme of "What Movie Do I Wish Was Never Made" and I chose Star Wars for the effect it had on the movie industry to this day.  That article is here.

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