Monthly Archives: May 2007

August 5th, 1977

[This post is participating in the Star Wars 30th Anniversary blog-a-thon.]

May 25th, 1977, was not an especially significant day for me. I was aware that some science fictiony thing called Star Wars had just opened, and I even saw a brief clip in the film-review segment of that evening’s news, but somehow, despite being a nerdy ten year old, the idea of seeing Star Wars held no appeal for me.

The decades of Star Wars mania that were soon to follow did such a thorough job of entombing my pre-Star Wars mentality that I can’t even construct a plausible theory to explain my disinterest, let alone remember the actual reason. A big-screen space adventure should have hit me right where I lived, and later, of course, it did, in a very big way. Could there really have been an earlier version of me that was immune to the prospect? In any event, the opening day of Star Wars came and went almost completely unremarked.

For the next many days I was subjected to my friend David‘s ravings about the film. He’d seen it on opening weekend with his dad. I regarded his lavish praise with skepticism. I knew David was also heavy into “hard SF,” to which I, a confirmed Trekkie, had not yet graduated. He had never been able to interest me in his sci-fi novelettes or his hex-grid sci-fi boardgames, which all seemed the same to me, lots of galactic-conquest-this and enslaving-races-that.


Well-thumbed

Before long, though, I could not escape the Star Wars phenomenon and decided to check out… the novel. I picked it up at the bookstore and was immediately hooked! I must have read it twice in one week and was determined to see the movie immediately. But it was too late: the summer had come and it was time to go to Monticello!

When we were in “the country” during the summer, my dad stayed in the city to work and came up to be with us on the weekends. While he was away, we were without a car. The bungalow colony where we stayed had everything we needed, so we never missed it — except that without a car, we couldn’t get to the movie theater at the Jamesway mall, where Star Wars was playing.

Each weekend that summer I pleaded with my parents to take us to see the movie, but there were always other things to do and never enough time. Meanwhile I read and re-read and re-read the book, and my parents tried to placate me with related Star Wars items like the LP of the music. Being surrounded all summer by a day camp full of kids abuzz about Star Wars, they were small comfort.

Finally, on the first Friday in August, my dad arrived from the city a little earlier than usual and announced, “Let’s go see Star Wars!” The drive from Sims Bungalow Colony to the mall could not have been more than five miles, but it seemed to take forever. Waiting for the movie to begin I fairly vibrated in my seat, possibly hyperventilating. Two hours later my parents reported, with equal measures of amusement and alarm, that they had not seen me blink once since the movie began.

I’d lost my Star Wars cherry and life was never the same. As soon as we were back in Forest Hills after the summer, I made my way to the Continental theater on Austin Street to see it again. And then again a week or two later.

By fall it was still playing, but I began to worry about the day it would disappear from the theaters. I hatched a scheme to tape-record the audio of the movie. I fit my Radio Shack cassette tape recorder inside a shoulder bag. I got fresh batteries. I got blank cassettes and took off the cellophane in advance — I didn’t want it crinkling when the time came. I put on my watch, said “Seeya tonight” to my folks, and sat through three consecutive shows of Star Wars at the Continental.

During the first show I used my watch to locate silences in the film during which I could flip or change my tape. During the second show I recorded the audio, deftly ejecting, flipping, and changing cassettes (all surreptitiously inside my shoulder bag, as I had practiced at home) at the times I’d marked down. And the third show was for — what else? — just being able to sit back and enjoy the movie.

A week later I did the exact same thing in order to have two recordings. The crappier one would serve as a backup. Of course they were both crappy, but they were good enough to listen to again and again, the way most other kids listened to their favorite records. In no time I had memorized every word, every note of music, and every sound effect. Where other kids would go around singing their favorite songs, I would recite Star Wars.

I must have driven my family and friends to distraction, but they were all very tolerant, even supportive — surprisingly so, in retrospect. I was not quite as bad as the character in Diner who compulsively quotes The Sweet Smell of Success to anyone and everyone rather than actually talk to them. But I was close. Fortunately I was still a few years away from trying to get laid.

Thirty years later I still remember the movie with near-perfect fidelity. When I read about Edward Copeland’s Star Wars blog-a-thon to commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary, I asked myself, “What can I contribute that’s more than just another reminiscence of the first time I saw Star Wars? What’s left to say that I haven’t already said?”

Then I saw Charles Ross’s One Man Star Wars show and thought, “I can do better!” That gave me my answer; and here it is. I whipped it together in a few hours with Audacity, Transcode, and a very cheap microphone. I apologize for the terrible “tape hiss” and the strange audio artifacts. I’m no sound engineer — and as this makes clear, I’m no voice actor either. I have a new appreciation for what Charles Ross does on stage — though I do think I nailed Mark Hamill’s reading of, “Are you kidding? At the rate they’re gaining?” And all of Chewbacca’s lines.

Update: I just found this online: the General Cinema feature-presentation “snipe,” which preceded my first viewing of Star Wars at the Monticello Twin Cinema. As far as I know, I only saw this “snipe” that one time, but its jazzy tune was seared into my memory and I’ve been humming it from time to time ever since. God, I love the Internet.

Update 2: The YouTube copy of the General Cinema snipe is gone but can still be found here.

Tuiling around

These days my evening reading is Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, and my daytime “reading” is a free audiobook of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (read superbly by one Marc Devine).

In last night’s reading, Vonnegut’s hero, Billy Pilgrim, was wandering behind enemy lines near Tuileries in France. And on this morning’s drive to work, Huck Finn’s narration mentioned the flight of Louis XVI from Tuileries Palace.

Never heard the name Tuileries before; now twice in twelve hours from two sources with no particular connection to each other and no particular reason for me to be reading them both now other than random chance. Crazy.

LASER: Likelihood Abatement by Synchronicity Exceeding Reality

  • 9 May: My mom dies.
  • 10 May: I help my sister start going through my mom’s apartment. Among the few items of interest I manage to find amidst thirty-five years’ worth of accumulated clutter is the December, 1966 issue of National Geographic, whose article, “The Laser’s Bright Magic,” about the invention of the laser, made an enormous impression on me when I was young. I also find the presentation I gave in fifth grade based on that article.
  • 11 May: Theodore Maiman, inventor of the laser and central figure in the aforementioned National Geographic article, dies.

Red airport, blue airport

Moblogging now from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where I am again connecting to another flight for my last leg home. And now, an observation:

At my previous layover in Detroit (yes, this one is a three-legged trip), there are CNN news monitors all over the terminal. The recorded security announcements about keeping your belongings with you begin with a woman’s voice stating, almost apologetically, “Due to heightened security restrictions…” And in the bookstore under “Fiction” there was a whole shelf filled with Kurt Vonnegut novels. Having finished and enjoyed Jailbird recently, I was eager to start on his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. The bookstore had many Vonnegut titles but not that one.

Here in the Twin Cities, it’s not CNN that appears throughout the airport but Fox News, which operates the magazine and candy concessions. The security announcements begin with a booming man’s voice declaring importantly, “The Security Level as established by the Department of Homeland Security is Orange.” And the bookstore contains no trace of Kurt Vonnegut, a favorite nemesis of conservatives.

I’m just sayin’.

Mom’s considerate timing

Moblogging from JFK, on my way back home after a very strange and sad week.

I flew here one week ago to help out with my mom. We knew she was in trouble, healthwise, and we knew she was pushing her luck for the umpteenth time by refusing (out of laziness, weariness, or resignation) some proportion of the medical care she needed. We knew that one day her luck would run out.

The point of my visit was to help my sister help my mom. Suzanne had been shouldering most of the burden as usual and needed a break. She had a big week coming up at work. I was extremely busy too as usual but arranged to come for one week. As it turns out, it was just the right time, and just the right amount of time, to

  • have a final few coherent interactions with my mom;
  • get her to the hospital;
  • be there when she died;
  • make a lot of calls to friends and relatives;
  • go through her house and pick out the few things that I wanted; and
  • attend her moving and ultimately joyous funeral.

Now here I am, headed home exactly on schedule, no muss, no fuss. As I said, strange.

Overtime over

Six years ago, my mom, an elderly diabetic, developed a massive infection. It was nearly septic, and she was at death’s door. Thanks to the extensive and deft surgical intervention of one Dr. Rifkind — who was certain my mom would not survive — she not only recovered, but lived long enough to become a grandmother, twice. She lived long enough to see her children succeed in their professions. She lived long enough to see her grandsons become great friends (like her own children before them) and begin growing into exceptional young men. In other words, she lived long enough to see her legacy assured. But she did not live long enough to suit me.

This afternoon, a brilliant May day, my mom died. This time it was an infection that did turn septic, among other serious complications. Holding her hand at the end, in the same hospital where she gave birth to us, were me and my sister. Her final words to us — late last night, the last time we saw her conscious — were “I love you.”

The eventful extra time she had was a miraculous gift, for her and for me. She shared a lot of joy she might have missed. But it was not enough. There was more joy to share.

My world grew a little lonelier today. I will miss her.

Remembrance of thing that rolled past

Sitting outside the hospital where my mom has just been admitted, I am looking at a car parked at the curb that has M.D. plates, which revived this memory:

Thirty years ago or so, while my friend Jon and I crossed the street to enter our elementary school one morning, a car rolled into the crosswalk and knocked Jon down. Jon wasn’t hurt, and the driver got a tongue-lashing from the crossing guard. The driver’s M.D. license plates said: MD 48205.

Yes, I remember a license plate from thirty years ago. Weird.

Mercy mission

Moblogging from the Lindbergh terminal of the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul, unexpectedly en route to New York, where my mom’s health has taken a turn for the worse. By tonight I should be back at my dad’s house near Roosevelt Field, where Charles Lindbergh took off on his history-making flight. And the book I’m reading on this trip (Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut) just mentioned Charles Lindbergh in passing. I just can’t get away from that guy!

And once again, my connection appears to have required about the longest walk between gates that it’s possible to have at this sprawling facility. I’m not complaining — it was a nice walk, and I can certainly use the exercise. But how is it possible that that happens every time I fly?

The exegesis strikes back

If the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, then I guess I’m not really “over” Star Wars, because I just can’t contain my frustration at how awful The Empire Strikes Back is.

(Yes, I am again going to tell you why you shouldn’t like a movie as much as you do.)

I watched Empire again for the first time in in a decade with my kids last week. Since they discovered Star Wars a couple of years ago, I have kept the lid on the existence of the sequels and the prequels, hoping to keep their experience of the Star Wars universe “pure” for as long as I could. Star Wars is perfect in its way; all of the other films merely detract from it.

Besides, if I had to wait years between installments, it won’t kill my kids to.

Keeping the other films secret did not prevent Jonah from learning in the schoolyard that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, among other things. I finally let the cat out of the bag (about the existence of episodes V and VI — I am not yet ready to let episodes I through III destroy my sons’ souls) when Andrea bought tickets for me and Jonah to go see the One Man Star Wars show later this month. To enjoy it, Jonah will need to know the entire original trilogy.

The secret of Star Wars’ success

In its 1977 review of Star Wars, Time magazine wrote:

Star Wars will find itself competing with several other major movies for the attention of audiences this summer, almost all of them with much bigger budgets. […]

Despite the talent and the money arrayed against it, Star Wars has one clear advantage: it is simple, elemental, and therefore unique. It has a happy ending, a rarity these days.

“A rarity these days”? In appreciating the impact of Star Wars, it is necessary not only to imagine what the state of the art in special effects was in 1977. (Check out Logan’s Run next chance you get. It won the Oscar for special effects shortly before Star Wars came out. That was the painfully cheesy state of the art.) It is also essential to remember that the ’70’s before Star Wars was a bleak time for movies a time for bleak movies. With the old studio system almost fully dismantled, a new generation of auteurs making important or disturbing or very personal films, and a new generation of stars more comfortable playing antiheroes rather than heroes, the movies were generally not a place you went for an uplifting good time. But boy did audiences need escapism — Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, and a recession were all current or recent memories. This is the cultural niche that Star Wars explosively filled. How many dozens of “simple, elemental” fantasy films have followed? Star Wars was the first. Can you imagine a moviegoing world where no such thing had existed for a generation? Can you now imagine how the arrival of such a film, at such a time, would thoroughly dominate the popular imagination for years to come?

The Time article quotes George Lucas as saying,

It’s the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old […] The plot is simple — good against evil — and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun.

Later, George Lucas would come to believe, and repeat ad nauseam, his own press about the mythic archetypes and timeless themes in his space saga. It’s all a lot of hooey. Star Wars succeeded because it was kid stuff in a world grown too adult.

I can’t fathom those who claim Empire is the best of the series. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Star Wars was light entertainment — indeed, that was the key to its success — whereas Empire strove to be something else — something deeper, more adult. For reasons I’ll go into below, it did not succeed. It was a mistake even to try. But the fact that it did try may render Empire more worthy, in the minds of some, for serious consideration.

In 1980, I was the biggest Star Wars fan that my friends and family knew. My friend Sarah and I played hooky from school on May 21st to wait hours in line for the first show of Empire at the Loews Orpheum on 86th Street in Manhattan. Afterward, everyone wanted to know what I thought.

I couldn’t admit the truth to them: that I didn’t like it. I couldn’t even admit it to myself. To do so would be to renounce my identity as a Star Wars fan — at that young age, the only identity of any kind I had yet managed to acquire beyond standard-issue “bright young man.” Besides, there were just enough thrills in the movie to confound my true feelings. I quickly zeroed in on an official line, which I repeated whenever anyone asked me how I liked Empire — since Episode V ended on a cliffhanger, I was reserving judgment until Episode VI.

The problems with Empire begin in the very first line of dialogue. Luke Skywalker tops a snowy rise on his tauntaun, unmasks himself in a closeup, pauses for applause, and speaks into his radio: “Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, you read me?”

Now, the story is that the rebellion has just moved its base to this new planet and is busy setting up shop and scouting out the area. Luke and Han are two of the leaders of this effort. Presumably they see each other multiple times every day, coordinating the hundreds of details involved. If you were Luke, would you address Han as “Han, old buddy” if you’d seen him just a few hours before? No, it would be, “Hey, you there?” “Old buddy” is how you’d address him if you hadn’t seen or spoken to him in a few years — just as the original audiences in 1980 hadn’t. Luke isn’t hailing his coworker, he’s reintroducing him to the audience. The fourth wall is broken.

A few moments later, Han himself rides into the new rebel base. Dismounting his tauntaun, he too unmasks himself and gazes past the camera for a moment while the applause subsides. He next strides pointlessly over to his ship to say something meaningless to Chewbacca and then walk away, all so Chewie can have his own applause moment. And an instant later it’s Leia’s turn to pose silently for the camera for a moment.

What is this, a movie or a fan convention?

Now the wampa subplot gets underway. Here it is in a nutshell: Luke is abducted by an ice monster, escapes, and is rescued.

The dramatization of this subplot is almost as uninteresting as that synopsis. (Han Solo appropriating Luke’s lightsaber to slice open the dead tauntaun and stuff Luke inside is what earns the “almost.”) It has no bearing at all on anything else that happens in the film, or the trilogy for that matter. Why is it even included? The answer has long been known to Star Wars fans even as George “the filmmaking technology of the 1970’s prevented me from showing Greedo shooting first” Lucas has denied it: Mark Hamill’s face was disfigured in a car crash after Star Wars, so they needed a way to explain his changed appearance in the new film. Their answer: a wampa paw in the kisser, story cohesion be damned.

A rebel officer cautions Han Solo against venturing out into the inhospitable Hoth night to look for Luke. “Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker!” Han Solo’s response is both inappropriate and out of character:

“Then I’ll see you in hell!”

This is something you’d say to your enemy, not to someone giving you sensible advice! It’s also the only intrusion into the series of earthly religious ideas, and weirdly out of place for that reason.

Next up in this target-rich environment: the aftermath of Luke’s ordeal. As he recuperates in the infirmary, it’s time for a little levity. Empire delivers it in the form of sophomoric name-calling.

Leia: I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser-brain.
Chewbacca: [laughs]
Solo: Laugh it up, fuzzball.

All of which culminates in this outburst from Princess Leia:

Why you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!

Guffaw.

Now, I can appreciate the value of a good name-calling insult, thou unmuzzled ill-breeding lewdster. But come on. “Laser-brain”?

I’ll give George Lucas a pass on the icky climax of the infirmary scene, where Leia smooches her twin brother just to get a rise out of Han Solo, because Lucas (by his own admission in a 1983 interview) didn’t know he would end up making Luke and Leia siblings until halfway through writing Episode VI. On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t get a pass. Shouldn’t he have had a central plot element like that planned out in advance? And what does it say about Leia’s maturity that she’d toy with Luke in this adolescent way?

Well, let’s move on. Soon Luke is all better, and just in time to face an Imperial invasion. On the way to his snowspeeder he bids Han Solo farewell. As Luke walks away, the camera lingers on (what can only be described as) Han’s strangely loving gaze. We knew he had a soft spot in his outlaw’s heart, but when did he turn into a sentimental sap?

Later, after a thrilling land battle in which Luke crashes his snowspeeder but buys time for many rebels to escape, Han Solo is making his own escape, but… the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive won’t work! On the one hand, that’s good, ’cause it means it’s time for a thrilling chase through a nearby asteroid field. On the other hand, what do you mean the hyperdrive won’t work? Did an angry wampa tear it apart looking for Luke (which would at least have tied the pointless wampa story into the rest of the plot)? No, it just plain broke.

We’re supposed to believe that the Falcon is the hottest smuggling hot-rod in the galaxy, and Han Solo is a wizard at wringing every drop of performance out of her. Yet somehow the hyperdrive was broken for no reason — and Han Solo had no idea? Oh well, it happens to the best of us, I guess, and the asteroid field scene is cool, no doubt about that.

But what’s the very next thing that happens? Luke crashes his X-Wing on Dagobah — also for no reason! Hotshot pilot my ass. For those keeping score, that’s two Luke crashes within about ten minutes of screen time. Not only are our heroes suffering a collective and inexplicable loss of mojo, but considering Mark Hamill’s real-life ordeal it’s in pretty poor taste for the screenwriters to keep pressing the “Luke crashes” button.

Fortunately for Luke, the one person on all of planet Dagobah he has come to see is within a soundstage of the crash site. Whew!

When Yoda reveals his identity to Luke, he chides his motives. “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things!” This is where Luke should have said, “OK, seeya, thanks for the soup.” In the movie-and-a-half leading up to this scene there is not one thing we know about Luke beyond his desire for adventure and excitement. Well, maybe his desire to know more about his father, but that in itself wouldn’t make him yearn to be a Jedi any more than I yearn to be a bookbinding salesman.

And by the way, what’s wrong with craving adventure and excitement? Yoda never says. He does say that Luke is filled with much anger. Really? Luke? Luke Skywalker? When Luke tells Yoda he’s not afraid, Yoda promises him mysteriously, “You will be. You will be.” Huh? Is Yoda in the same movie as everyone else?

I’d like to turn our attention away from Dagobah for just long enough to make this observation: with hundreds of ships and thousands of fleet personnel at his disposal, why, exactly, does Darth Vader think he’ll have better luck capturing the Millennium Falcon by putting a tiny handful of bounty hunters on the job? Fortunately for the bounty hunters, when the Imperial fleet finally flushes the Falcon out of the asteroid field, her hyperdrive is still busted. Han Solo’s repairs aren’t worth spit (and baling wire). Groan.

Back to Yoda, who implores Luke to stay on Dagobah until his training is complete. “Only a fully trained Jedi knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader and his emperor.” Ben opines that Luke is their “last hope.” Two things about this: first, what do Ben and Yoda think a greenhorn like Luke can do alone against the Empire that they themselves could not have done better together years earlier, before the Empire amassed its present might? And second, if everything depends on Luke, why in the world did Ben wait so long to begin Luke’s Jedi training?

Ben makes a last plea to Luke: “If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere.” But… but… you already have interfered! You got Luke to go to Dagobah! You persuaded Yoda to train him! So obviously you can interfere, you just choose not to. But if Luke is your last hope, you damn well better interfere! What, is Ben making an empty threat? Is he throwing a tantrum? None of this makes very much sense. And what about Yoda? Can’t he lend a hand? He’s a freakin’ Jedi Master, for crying out loud.

No, for some reason, Luke is all on his own. He leaves Dagobah and heads to Cloud City, where our other heroes are prisoners. Darth Vader is using Luke’s friends as bait to trap Luke, which is well and good, but then he plans to… freeze him for his journey to the Emperor? Why does he feel the need to do something bizarre like that? We never find out. Can’t a dark lord of the Sith and a jillion stormtroopers safely imprison an incompletely trained Jedi for the duration of a single interplanetary trip?

Whatever. This gives us the chance to see Luke trying to hold his own against Vader in a series of pretty cool duel scenes. Vader’s psychological assault on Luke and the decision Luke faces are the only parts of “deeper, more adult” in the film that do work.

Enough bashing of individual moments in the film. Let’s look at some of the bigger problems.

The first is a personal complaint concerning the differences in the Force between the first film and the second. In Star Wars, the Force can be seen as an allegory for self-confidence, an idea that has held great appeal for me my whole life. Anyone can become proficient with “the Force” just by honing and believing in their own abilities. In Empire (and the rest of the series) that idea is out the window. The Force is something that runs in families — if you ain’t got it, that’s too damn bad — and you can do magic with it, and Forcey good guys can come back as ghosts to keep their old Forcey friends company. (Yes, in Star Wars, Luke hears Ben’s voice after Ben dies. But like the “ghosts” in Six Feet Under, Ben’s voice gives Luke no new information, so is it really Ben’s ghost saying encouraging things to Luke or is it just Luke’s memory of Ben’s training? That ambiguity plays better, for me, than Ben’s floating, spectral form [complete with the cloak that was left behind when he died] having conversations with people.)

My next big complaint is that the story is too small. It’s all about Darth Vader being obsessed with Luke. The Empire hardly does any striking back! The first movie was about a galaxy in turmoil; this one’s about a small group of people.

What if the Empire really did strike back in this film? Luke, on a cocky high after lucking into a major rebel victory, would be horrified to witness the awesome power of the Empire as it brings all its resources to bear and eradicates nearly every vestige of the rebellion. Somehow managing to survive the galactic holocaust, Luke retreats into obscurity — echoes of Ben Kenobi! — utterly demoralized and haunted by what he’s seen and (indirectly) caused. Eventually he befriends a local starry-eyed farmboy with dreams of adventure, and at first tries to knock the wanderlust out of him. But in the end it is his own sense of duty and derring-do that is reawakened. (Episode VI could then have been about the two of them building a newer, stronger rebel alliance that finally does topple the Empire. Oh well. This is not the first time — or the second — that I’ve thought I could do the story of Star Wars better myself.)

Say what you will about Return of the Jedi — the irksome Ewoks, the perfunctory return visit to Dagobah (and its oversized helping of exposition), the broken-record reuse of the Death Star as the military objective, and the way the rebellion seems to hand out generalships like candy — it was fun to see Luke kick ass, to see Threepio revered, to see the Emperor dominate Vader, to see Leia in a bikini. Fun is what Star Wars was supposed to be about. Maybe George Lucas, the famous film rebel, was rebelling against the success of his own creation, but for whatever reason, The Empire Strikes Back was no fun at all.