By Scott Ross
Some cultural commentators and movie lovers disdain the Star Wars pictures, for any number of perfectly legitimate reasons. But unlike nearly everyone else of my generation, I had an aversion to Star Wars long before I actually saw it.
I was working in Reference at my high school library the day that now-famous Time magazine came across the desk. One 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, and I gave less than a damn about that.) 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, coupled with the kind of job it was, would enable him to go to many more movies — I noticed the side top banner of the May 30 issue immediately: “Inside: The Year’s Best Movie.”
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. (It still surprised me that the weekly top-10 box office figures were printed in the paper along with actual news.) But if you bear in mind that this was an era of really interesting American studio 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.” And in early May, yet; not exactly the time of year for hard-hitting drama.
The 1976 releases had been rather good, sometimes exceptionally so. Being dependent on my mother to ferry me to the movies (and my meager allowance to pay for the tickets… and when I say “meager,” I mean a dollar a week) I hadn’t seen all those titles from 1976 I wanted to, and would later. Still, I had seen, and loved, Marathon Man, Network, The Seven Per Cent Solution, The Front, Murder by Death, Silver Streak and Silent Movie. And consider a few of that year’s other titles, the ones I missed: 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. The comedies hadn’t been altogether bad either: Car Wash, The Bad News Bears, Freaky Friday, The Ritz. True, some of the bigger, or more bruited, entries didn’t pan out (King Kong, Logan’s Run, Nickelodeon, Welcome to L.A., The Missouri Breaks) 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 would see during the coming summer, and loathe.) So, while I had seen little art in that Bicentennial year, the possibilities for good new American movies seemed, in ’77, if not limitless at least open.
So, I flipped through Time to “The Year’s Best Movie” … and saw…
Spaceships and little robots. Uh-huh.
I put Time and its Best Movie of the Year back on the pile, and promptly forgot about it.
By the early part of summer ’77 I had that part-time job at last. 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 allowing me to see any movie in town (provided I waited until at least the second weekend of a new picture’s opening) made it, despite the low pay and the vicissitudes of working for an especially un-pleasant, humorless, piggy-eyed little putz 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. And what was out there was infinitely better than what we were showing: Having passed on Star Wars, the owner of our theatre had opted instead for the Burt Reynolds redneck-fest Smokey and the Bandit (the 4th top-grossing movie of that year, incidentally) 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 the NC State campus in Raleigh that showed hard-core porn at night and, of all things, foreign and “art” films during the day. I spent many pleasant hours there (during the day, I hasten to add) and at other cinemas in the area, enjoying fare like The International Tournée of Animation (I forget which number), Man on the Roof, Providence, the uproarious Watergate satire Nasty Habits, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, Slap Shot, the problematic but moving A Bridge Too Far, The Spy Who Loved Me, Annie Hall (which after later viewings became something of a magic talisman for me; so much for the love of teenagers), the underrated Rollercoaster (about which I’ve written elsewhere in these pages), the not entirely successful but intensely expressed William Friedkin version of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer and, especially, the absolutely lovely Disney animated feature The Rescuers.
But what I resolutely did not see was Star Wars.
My best friend Michael felt the acting was poor and the dialogue silly, but he loved it anyway, and tried, vainly, throughout that summer to get me to see it with him. I just 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 much too big a snob to be taken in by the hype. If any movie was that popular, I argued — conveniently forgetting in my superior attitude the examples of both The Godfather and Jaws — how could it possibly be any good? The People (sniff!) were 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 almost 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 during the summer 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, not finding anyone to accompany me didn’t dampen my ardor. (I even went to late-shows by myself. A drag, but if no one can go with you, do you just not go to a double-bill of Rebecca and Notorious?) 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 motion picture.
This was my Star Wars. Screw hairy aliens and space battles. Close Encounters of the Third Kind 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 in Raleigh until Michael, needing assistance at the large mall 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 (and Michael Hodern) but was no Tom Jones; Fred Zinnemann and Alvin Sargent’s Julia was lovely but diffuse; and Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which came with a climax so shattering I was barely able to move my legs enough to open the exit doors for the patrons on its first night, was also unpleasant — so much so that I clocked more walkouts for it than for any other movie we played that year. We also got, courtesy of George Lucas’ new celebrity, a reissue of American Graffiti, an early so-called “Director’s Cut” mostly featuring additional footage of the newly regnant Harrison Ford. 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 nascent film career, Heroes and The One and Only.
As usual, all the really good movies were playing somewhere else.
Michael 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 pretty much 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 on my part would 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, especially of the space-fantasy variety. But I’d seen enough to know how poor, and limited, those I had seen were — with, interestingly, the exception of Close Encounters, which had far better effects than Star Wars, due largely to Spielberg blowing up his frames from 35 to 70 mm, rendering them better than anything I’d ever seen. After seeing that, the much-vaunted jump to hyperspace was a letdown, although I can understand why it had turned so many kids on the year before.
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 ’78: 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 — and on their CGI-generated successors. But if you were around to see Star Wars (or Close Encounters) 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 done without, and cannot imagine their lives without, personal computers, portable cell phones, flat-screen HD-TVs and video on demand. Trying to explain to Millennials how jaw-droppingly unexpected the things in Star Wars and Close Encounters were to audiences in the late ’70s is a bit like the parents of my mother’s and father’s generation attempting to impart how magical radio was to children who’d never known life without television.
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 most of us had ever seen — seemingly effortless, as though the images had gone straight from Lucas’ brain to the screen itself.
And knowing rather more about movie history than most of my peers, 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 disheveled look, a grunginess we’d not seen before in a space-fantasy context, where nothing ever looked lived-in, added to the appeal. 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, virtually unheard of for a movie score. (His more tonally complex and interesting Close Encounters LP, a single disc, sold considerably less well.)
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. (See above.) 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 (far too many times in some cases) a Damascus Road conversion for me. I preferred Close Encounters, then, 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 latterly entered the Lucas omniverse, one whose darkness, emotional content, ambiguous ending and simple room for breathing space (the Yoda sequences) satisfied me completely.
Not being of an especially scientific frame of mind, I wasn’t aware — as indeed I suspect most people who saw the movie also weren’t — until being told 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 rocket whines and 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, since the phenomenal success of Jaws is usually cited in these calculations) 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 Public likes, 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 — think of the number of people who saw it as children and now believe Willow is a classic — 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, Altmans, Mazurskys 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, “Nobody knows anything.” They merely believe they do… after the fact.
If I’m still dubious about a single aspect of a cinematic enterprise that I admit has given me periodic 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 perception, expressed on one of the recent Star Wars DVDs, that Lucas somehow 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.
*Which sounds suspiciously like a Hollywood law-firm: “Hello, Craven, Avaricious and Cowardly. How may I help you?”
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross