I had a bad feeling about this: My “Star Wars” problem

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By Scott Ross

Unlike nearly everyone else of my generation, I had an aversion to Star Wars long before I saw it.

I was working in Reference at my high school library the day that now-famousTime magazine came across the desk. Part of my responsibilities was to stamp in the new periodicals, which had the added perk of allowing me to see them before anyone else. (Not that there was much clamor for any of them, other than when the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” arrived.) An avid movie fanatic who at 16 was about to receive his first taste of the freedom that came with having an after-school job and a car of his own — both of which would enable him to go to many more movies — I noticed the side top banner of the May 30 issue immediately:

Once I’d worked my way through the pile of magazines I was checking in I turned back to this one. “The Year’s Best Movie”? I wasn’t yet plugged in, as I would soon be, to the growing press for all things Hollywood, and didn’t have a mental list of forthcoming titles. But if you bear in mind that this was an era of really interesting movies being released on a fairly regular basis, you can imagine what sort of film I was thinking might be deemed (and by Time magazine, mind you) “the best of the year.”

The year before this the releases had been rather good, sometimes exceptionally so. Being dependent on my mother to ferry me to the movies, I hadn’t seen all of those from 1976 I would later, but I had seen, and loved, Marathon Man, Network, The Seven Per Cent Solution, The Front and Silent Movie. Consider a few of that year’s other titles: Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Carrie, Family Plot, Harlan County USA, Mikey and Nicky, Robin and Marian, Bound for Glory, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Murder by Death. The comedies hadn’t been altogether bad either: Car Wash, The Bad News Bears, Freaky Friday, The Ritz, Silver Streak. True, some of the bigger, more bruited entries didn’t pan out (King Kong, Logan’s Run, The Missouri Breaks, Nickelodeon, Welcome to L.A.) and there were huge hits that had done nothing to pique my interest (A Star is Born, The Omen and the year’s big title, Rocky, which I’d loathed.) Still, the possibilities for good new American movies seemed, if not limitless, at least open.

So I flipped through Time to “The Year’s Best Movie”… and saw this:

Oh. Spaceships and little robots. Uh-huh.

I put Time and its Best Movie of the Year right back on the pile, and promptly forgot about it.

By the early part of summer ’77 I had a part-time job at last (I’d turned 16 in January). The fact that said position was at a two-screen movie theatre — the then-limit in “multiplex” — and entitled me, in lieu of a decent salary, to a pass which allowed me to see any movie in town, provided I waited until at least the second weekend of a new film’s opening, made it, despite the low pay and the vicissitudes of working for an especially un-pleasant, humorless, piggy-eyed little schmuck of a theatre owner, just about the best job I could imagine having at the time. I spent that summer seeing movie after movie, two a day sometimes. What was out there was infinitely better than what we were showing: Having passed on Star Wars, the owner had instead opted for the Burt Reynolds redneck-fest Smokey and the Bandit (the 4th top-grossing movie of the year) for one screen; I forget what was on the other, but since we ran perhaps two or three decent movies the entire year I worked there, it couldn’t have been very inspiring, whatever it was. The Peter Benchley-scripted The Deep or Neil Simon’s lame Murder by Death follow-up The Cheap Detective, possibly. That was the sort of trash we tended to play. For months.

If I wanted to see a good movie, I usually had to go to a competing theatre. There was at the time an old movie-house across from NC State campus that showed hard-core porn at night and, of all things, foreign and “art” films during the day. I spent many pleasant hours there, and at other cinemas in the area, enjoying fare like Allegro Non Troppo, Man on the Roof, Providence, the uproarious Watergate satire Nasty Habits, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, Slap Shot, the problematic A Bridge Too Far, The Spy Who Loved Me, Annie Hall (which after later viewings became something of a magic talisman for me), the underrated Rollercoaster (about which I’ve written before in these pages), the not entirely successful but intensely felt William Friedkin version of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer and, especially, the absolutely lovely Disney animated feature The Rescuers.

I resolutely did not see Star Wars.

My best friend felt the acting was bad and the script silly, but he loved it anyway, and tried, vainly, throughout that summer to get me to see it with him. I couldn’t see the point. By this time, of course, the movie had become a fully fledged cultural phenomenon. One couldn’t avoid hearing about it. But I was far too patrician a snob to be taken in by the hype. Ifany movie was that popular, I argued — conveniently forgetting in my superior attitude the examples of both The Godfather and Jaws, a movie I’d loved — how could it possibly be any good? The People were (sniff!) simply not to be trusted in these matters.

Besides, my 1977 summer was magical enough without recourse to whooshing futuristic spacecraft and funny robots. I couldn’t have articulated that at the time, of course, because I was simply too busy being young, reasonably independent, and, absurdly for a 16 year old, happy to recognize that time as magical. Had I known how I would feel by the end of the following year, I might have recognized the time I was enjoying as a golden period. But that would have required prescience far beyond my meager share. All I could say for certain was that the Star Wars behemoth did not interest me, either culturally or cinematically.

And as if to cement those feelings, a movie opened around Christmas that year that far outstripped, in my admittedly ignorant mind, any hold a silly space-opera could have had on me. By design, I knew nothing about it beyond the two-page ad I’d seen in the New York Times before that extraordinary night, the second weekend into its run, when I braved the shopping mall crowd and took it in.

In those days, I didn’t mind going to the movies by myself. Since I so often went in the daytime, when my close friends were working their own part-time jobs, and since I was so completely movie-mad, if no one was available to accompany me, it didn’t dampen my ardor. That evening, I was on my own. I settled into a seat in the very close and crowded theatre, and spent the next two and half hours more entranced than I think I’d ever been in my life by a single movie.

This was my Star Wars. Screw hairy aliens and space battles. Close Encounters fulfilled my needs, exceeded my expectations and was, for all its size and scope, both deeply human and deeply humane.

I was to work at the Mission Valley Cinema I & II until my best friend, needing assistance at the peanut shop his father owned and at which he was the manager, and knowing my frustration with the beady-eyed homunculus who owned the theatres, offered me a part-time position, and I took it. By then I was more than exhausted with Mr. Nance and his choice of films. True, we’d somehow gotten a pair of exceptional movies, neither of which made a dime (Robert Altman’s dreamlike 3 Women and the fine adaptation of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) and a few that were not bad in themselves, if also not entirely successful artistically: Tony Richardson’s Joseph Andrews had moments but was no Tom Jones; Fred Zinnemann and Alvin Sargent’s Julia was lovely but too diffuse; and Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which came with a climax so shattering I was nearly unable to open the exit doors for the patrons on its first night, was also unpleasant—so much so that I counted more walkouts for it than for any other movie we played that year. But the general run of our features tended to the likes of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, A Piece of the Action, Orca, Kingdom of the Spiders, High Anxiety, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, The World’s Greatest Lover and not one but two dogs that more or less killed off Henry Winkler’s film career, Heroes and The One and Only. As usual, all the really good movies were playing somewhere else.

My best friend was almost as much of a movie-nut as I was. We went to many together, a lot of them late-shows of classic Hollywood features of the ’30s and ’40s exhibited at that weird old art cinema/porno grindhouse. I’d generally go to anything he was interested in seeing, and vice-versa. But when Star Wars came back for the summer of 1978, I put my foot down. No amount of cajoling would move me… until the night he finally succeeded in nearly dragging me, kicking and kvetching, to the damn thing. When he called to say, “Let’s go” I was settling in for the night. I’d taken out my contact lenses. I didn’t want to go out — and certainly not to see That Movie! No amount of suasion would on my part work this time, however, and his last words before he hung up were on the order of, “I’ll be there in five minutes; put in your lenses.”

Well, I sort of loved it.

Admitting that I had actually enjoyed Star Wars was one of the harder confessions I’d ever made. Looking back, it’s not hard to understand why even a snob like me could surrender. I wasn’t exactly the prime audience for big-budget, effects-laden spectacle. But I’d seen enough to know how poor, and limited, those I had seen were. That’s probably the most difficult thing to explain to someone too young to have seen (or even been around to see)Star Wars in 1977 or 1978: In the ensuing years, largely due to George Lucas’ success at pushing for, and achieving, much of what he wanted, on this movie and every subsequent entry into the series, those effects now, if not seeming exactly old-hat, are at least taken for granted by two generations raised on them. But if you were around then to see Star Wars when it was still new, you can’t quite get younger people who have grown up on this stuff to understand how stunningly effective that original movie really was. They’ve never lived without such wonders, as many have never lived without, cannot imagine life without, personal computers, cell-phones and home video. Trying to explain how jaw-droppingly unexpected the things in Star Wars were to audiences in the late ’70s is a bit like the parents of my generation attempting to impart how magical the radio was to children who’d never known life without a television set.

The look of the thing, from that opening shot of the battle cruiser’s impossibly long underside to the light sabers and the holographic stop-motion chess pieces, was unlike anything we’d ever seen — seemingly effortless, as though the images had gone straight from Lucas’ brain to the screen itself.

Knowing rather more than most about movie history, I immediately “got” the affectionate tributes to the Buck Rogers serials and Errol Flynn swashbucklers, most memorably represented in Luke and Leia’s breathless swing across the Death Star chasm.

I also appreciated the old-fashioned optical wipes and lap dissolves, which I had only ever seen employed in one previous contemporary movie, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. And the fact that the externals of the picture, as well as the sets, which could be gleaming and clean, also reflected a certain lived-in look, a grunginess we’d not seen before in a space-fantasy context, where nothing ever looked lived-in. I also responded, as everyone did, to that magnificent, leitmotif-ridden John Williams score, which managed to be simultaneously revolutionary (full, thickly-textured symphonic music at a time when film scoring tended toward electronica and small combos) and retro (evocative of the past) at one and the same time. Williams had been of special interest to me since The Towering Inferno and Jaws, composing for the latter the most recognizable theme since Bernard Herrmann terrified the nation with Psycho. Not coincidentally, the unprecedentedly double LP soundtrack went platinum, selling 2,000,000 units in the U.S. alone.

If I had a complaint at the time, it was a relatively minor one: The jump to light-speed never held for me the visceral excitement I wanted from it. I’d expected, hearing about it beforehand, something that would slam my back against the theatre seat and turn my head around. It didn’t. Nor was seeing the movie, finally, long after the rest of America had (some far too many times) a Demascus Road conversion for me. I still preferred Close Encounters, and I still do. Only when The Empire Strikes Back opened two years later did I sense that, for all the dazzle and fun of the first movie, a real human element had entered the Lucas omniverse, one whose darkness and feeling and sheer room for breathing space (the Yoda sequences) satisfied me completely.

Not being of an especially scientific frame of mind, I didn’t notice — as indeed I suspect most people who saw the movie didn’t — that space is a vacuum. Two years later, 20th Century-Fox, which had by then made more millions on Star Wars than on any movie since The Sound of Music, released Alien with the instantly famous tag-line, “In space, no one can hear you scream”; it was almost a dig at Lucas himself and his many loud space-explosions. Which, like noticing the young woman in the drawing of the old lady, cannot be ignored once it’s been pointed out. For Lucas, in space, everyone can hear you scream.

My second “Star Wars Problem” was to arrive later — when I absorbed fully how its shattering fiscal impact had altered the movie game, ending that era of more personal filmmaking the best of the ’70s had come to represent — much of it, alas, too late for me to have enjoyed except later, in revival houses and on home video. Not that Lucas (or Spielberg, for that matter) is, or was, wholly “to blame” for what happened; it’s the usual course of events when dealing with the craven, the avaricious and the cowardly: The studio Suits want more of what they think The People like, and less of what they think of as foul-tasting medicine. L & S are surely culpable, as producers, for their subsequent descents into pap and juvenilia and the deleterious effects of that on the larger culture, but the overwhelming success of Jaws and Star Wars was, in both cases, wholly unexpected by their directors, and not a concerted attack on the Pakulas and Scorseses, the Altmans and Coppolas of the movie world. You can’t plan for that sort of thing, whatever the frightened temporary heads of the studios may believe. As William Goldman famously noted of Hollywood, “No one knows anything.” They merely believe they do.

If I’m still dubious about a single aspect of a cinematic enterprise that I admit has given me great pleasure over the ensuing years, it’s the slightly acrid dogmatism of the thing. For a liberal of his time, Lucas’ reliance on what Harrison Ford’s Han Solo regards as a “hokey religion” is at best philosophically oxymoronic. The Jedi’s “Think less, feel more” mantra carries a queasy whiff of fundamentalism, despite the obvious compassion behind the mysticism. Another contradiction: For a series of movies as symbiotically dependent upon special effects as these, the lesson of Return of the Jedi, in which the Ewoks with their organic, “primitive,” skills and weaponry, triumph in battle against the technologically advanced Imperial forces, makes for a tutorial of rather doubtful provenance.

And, too, I’m bothered by the feeling, expressed on one of the recent Star Wars DVDs, that Lucas banished the post-Nixonian national malaise and made it okay to have fun at the movies again. It’s obvious that Star Wars touched a nerve in its vast audience, but if you extrapolate that rather smug mentality to its equally obvious conclusion, are we as a culture really better off with fewer Klutes, Chinatowns and McCabe and Mrs. Millers and more Top Guns, Independence Days and Titanics? For the most successful independent filmmaker since Walt Disney, that’s rather more dubious a legacy than I think George Lucas might wish to have on his conscience.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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