The Summer of Star Wars: Part I
A long time ago, in 1977... information didn't move as fast as it does today. And even when you did hear about something noteworthy, like a groundbreaking summer film, it was usually through word of mouth. That's how I found out about Star Wars.
I was attending a summer camp as a 10-year-old when I heard the other kids talking about Star Wars. No one had actually seen it yet. The reason was that it still hadn't made it to our local cinema in Richland, Washington. Instead, boys arrived at camp with the Marvel comic adaptations of Star Wars.
Once Star Wars finally did make it to our local theater (I'm guessing by late June or July), I opened the Tri-City Herald and stared at the black-and-white advertisement that probably looked something like this:
Similar to the comics, the images in that low-fidelity advertisement seemed to evoke more mysteries and questions. Was that guy holding a laser sword? What was that menacing mask floating in the background? Why were those ships flying toward that small moon? Or is it a space station? (Little did I know Han Solo would make the same mistake.)
Seeing Star Wars
Eventually, I did see Star Wars with my family at the Uptown Theater in downtown Richland. The Uptown was built in 1950s, and like most of the theaters from that era, it featured a single massive screen. We stood in line for a while, and as we inched toward the box office I gazed upon the full-color poster. It was most likely the Tom Jung version:
But it could have been the Brothers Hildebrandt poster:
After buying a tub of buttered popcorn, we settled into our seats in the sold-out auditorium. But once the movie started, I probably stopped eating my popcorn. The image of that starship whizzing by (which I later learned was the Rebel Blockade Runner) and then the colossal Star Destroyer giving chase, must have made my little jaw drop. (Later I'd learn that even the people who worked on Star Wars were awestruck by that opening scene; they had no idea it was going to look like that.)
As spectacular as the opening was, I also remember being a bit perplexed: Were the Stormtroopers robots? Was Darth Vader a robot? But I soon forgot about my questions; there was just too much to see and hear.
Imagine you're a 10-year-old kid who had never seen Star Wars -- and you're presented with a fantastic world that includes:
- Jawas (robots or creatures?) driving their giant Sandcrawler vehicle across the sand
- Luke driving his Landspeeder that floated above the ground
- The fearsome Sandpeople who almost kill Luke (I jumped when they blocked Luke's electrobinoculars and were suddenly hovering over him)
- Luke getting his father's Lightsaber from Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi, and then hearing about the "Clone Wars" and the death of his father at the hands of Darth Vader (I don't even remember if I knew the guy at the beginning who throttled Captain Antilles was Darth Vader).
- The Mos Eisley Cantina: Hammerhead carrying on a casual conversation (I remember my Mom nudging me as if she couldn't believe it either); Obi-Wan slicing some guy's arm off who was bothering Luke a the bar ("He doesn't like you! I don't like you either!"); and Han Solo shooting Greedo under the table (later re-edited by Lucas for the special edition with Greedo shooting first.)
- The Death Star destroying an entire planet with its laser weapon
- The Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace
- Luke practicing with his Lightsaber for the first time -- and using the Force
- R2-D2 playing a holographic chess game against Chewbacca. (C3PO: "Let the Wookie win!")
- Luke, Han, and Chewie running around the Death Star, and Obi-Wan attending to the business of turning off the tractor beam.
- The rescue of sassy Princess Leia and the gunfight in the detention block
- Luke getting pulled under the murky water in the trash compactor by a one-eyed creature -- and then escaping
- Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie almost getting crushed in the trash compactor, and the Droids saving the day ("Listen to them R2; they're dying!")
- Obi-Wan dueling with Vader -- and appearing to lose. Did that Lightsaber incinerate him? Why is Vader stepping on Obi-Wan's empty cloak? (But then we hear his voice in Luke's head, "Run, Luke! Run!")
- The escape from the Death Star and the incredible battle against the TIE fighters. After Luke blasts one of them, Solo yells his famous line: "Great, kid! Now don't get cocky!"
At this point, I remember thinking the movie was over. They had escaped to Yavin. What more was there to do? Then I saw those sleek X-wing fighters in the hanger, and I knew we were in for an even bigger battle. Best of all, Luke was piloting one of the ships -- and taking R2 with him!
As transcendent as that final act of Star Wars was, there were two scenes that put it over the top:
1) The point-of-view shot of the fighters flying into the Death Star trench.
2) Luke hearing the voice of Obi-Wan telling him to "let go," turning off his targeting computer, and then destroying the Death Star (with Han Solo and Chewie's help, of course).
And if that wasn't enough, Luke, and Solo receive medals from the Princess. (I've never understood why Chewbacca didn't get a medal, but maybe it was against his code to receive awards?)
After the movie, we drove home through darkness and I went straight to bed. But something transformative had happened to me during Star Wars. As I fell asleep, I dreamed continuously that I was Luke in Star Wars. I relived the scene where he dove his X-wing into the Death Star trench. When I woke the next day, it seemed as if the world had changed. This wasn't just a film; it was a historic event, and I was somehow part of it.
Later, I read about other people who experienced similar reactions -- even adults. For example, Roger Ebert opened his review of Star Wars with this:
Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them.
The "out-of-body experience" that Ebert describes might explain what happened to me. Usually when the movie's over and the lights come up, you wake from the cinematic dreamworld. But with Star Wars, the experience was so powerful that it continued right into my own dreams. It seemed like magic.
Ten or so years later, when I was in college, I found out about Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces through Bill Moyers' show The Power of Myth. Campbell had fused ideas from Adolph Bastian (1826-1905) and Carl Jung (1875-1961) to arrive at "The Hero's Journey" -- the idea that all myths are constructed from similar elements. George Lucas rediscovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces during the writing of Star Wars.
"I spent about a year reading lots of fairy tales--and that's when (the Star Wars screenplay) starts to move away from Kurosawa and toward Joe Campbell," Lucas says. "About the time I was doing the third draft I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I started to realize I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I'll make it fit more into that classic mold."
Rinzler, J. W. (2013-10-22). The Making of Star Wars (Enhanced Edition) (Kindle Locations 1655-1657). LucasBooks. Kindle Edition.
We all have these transcendent experiences in our lives, but for me Star Wars was one that stayed with me. It was the first time a piece of art had reached me on such a deep level. When I finally discovered the keys to how Star Wars had cast its spell, I was surprised that it didn't diminish my view of it as a film. If anything, the more I learned about how this little $11 million film was made, the more interesting it became. To this day, I still buy books about the making of Star Wars, and I'm still surprised by how much creativity is went into it.
Labels: influences and inspirations