The “Empire Strikes” wayback

In 1980, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot fell on Wednesday, May 21st.

On that flimsy premise, my friend Sarah and I managed to convince her understanding mom to let her skip school. We didn’t do anything Shavuot-related. Instead, we hopped on the subway in Queens and emerged in Manhattan on 86th Street to wait in line at the Loews Orpheum theater for the first show of The Empire Strikes Back.

We Star Wars nerds had subsisted on a single two-hour movie for three years (not counting a certain very forgettable Holiday Special), with no hint that there’d ever be more — not, that is, until the preceding August, when the news of a sequel consigned us to as many months of anticipatory vibration as I would later experience waiting to become a dad. (But in 1980, that was a much larger fraction of my life, thus many times more interminable.)

The movie began and I was breathless. An article in Time magazine had unfortunately spoiled the small surprise about Yoda’s identity, but not the big surprise about Darth Vader, and I can still recall the sensation of my heart skipping a beat.

When the lights came up, Sarah and I were determined to sit through another screening. The ushers came through to shoo everyone out, but we hid in the bathrooms — along with dozens of others who’d had the same idea.

When it was safe to come out, and the next show’s crowd started filing in, I spotted Mr. Rosenberg, a fellow Star Wars nerd and my music-appreciation teacher. He had all my classmates in tow. He’d been using John Williams’ film score to teach his class for the past few weeks, just so he could justify this field trip to the movie on opening day.

I was such a Star Wars nerd that liking The Empire Strikes Back was a given. It took me decades to figure out that I didn’t, actually. When I finally figured that out, I wrote about why: The exegesis strikes back.

In response, plenty of people helpfully informed me that Empire was the best film in the series. I always asked what made them think so. No one was ever able to tell me. That didn’t make them any less sure they were right.

I may not have changed any minds with my contrarian article, but at least now I finally know I’m not alone: BBC journalist Nicholas Barber gets it too.
Why Star Wars should have stopped at just one film
Why The Empire Strikes Back is overrated

All for nothing?

See Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in 3D. When it begins, and the title and opening crawl recede into the the starry backdrop, the depth effect is amazing. It is the best part of the movie.

The second best part of the movie is five seconds near the very end: a wordless look that passes between Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and another character. You’ll know it when you see it. That Oscar Isaac — he can do more with a look than the rest of the movie can do with $XX million in special effects. It’s worth the price of admission.

The third best part of the movie is the subversiveness of casting Keri Russell, a famously beautiful woman, as a character whose face we don’t even see.

The fourth best part of the movie is that they never mention midichlorians.

The fifth best part of the movie is that John Williams gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on-screen cameo.

The sixth best part of the movie came after it ended. As my wife and I drove home, there was a long stretch of baffled silence while we separately mulled over what we had both just seen, and she suddenly exclaimed, “What?!” in a way that caused us both to laugh and laugh and laugh.

The relationship of The Rise of Skywalker to Star Wars is the same as that of the modern-day Church to the original teachings of Jesus: the result of generations of people with opinions and ambition troweling layers of ponderous meaning and import on top of something that once was compact and simple and wonderful.

Close encounter of the Burtt kind


Back in 2013 I took my family to see a 30th-anniversary showing of Return of the Jedi (at “George Lucas’s favorite movie theater”). Before the show there was a costume contest: kids dressed as Jedi knights, stormtroopers, Yoda. Some women in gold Leia bikinis. After the show there was a panel with three of the Lucasfilm staff who’d worked on the movie in the 1980’s: two people I don’t remember, and Ben Burtt, the Oscar-winning genius sound designer.

Ben Burtt created the hum of lightsabers, the roar of the Millennium Falcon, the beeps and whistles of Artoo Detoo, the pew pew of blasters, and a hundred other sonic inventions besides. If you think about (or ever get to see) what the raw footage of Star Wars sounded like before his effects were added, you’ll quickly understand how much of that film’s wizardry was aural and not visual. Ben Burtt is my hero.

So after Ben Burtt told a bunch of terrific stories from back in the day at Lucasfilm (the other two panelists had little to say), and after the audience broke up, I just had to approach Burtt to shake his hand and tell him this:

“In 1977 I smuggled a tape recorder into the movie theater and recorded Star Wars. I listened to it over and over the way other kids listened to their favorite records. I have to tell you: the visual effects don’t hold up so well nowadays, but in all this time no one has ever surpassed the sound design.”

Burtt thanked me and, playfully immodest, agreed. He told me that, as a kid, he too smuggled a tape recorder into a movie theater once to capture the audio of his favorite film: Goldfinger! Great minds…

Nerd alert


I got this book for Christmas:

It describes the sometimes-fascinating stories behind most of the sound effects from the Star Wars films and includes a sound chip that can play them back individually.

Reading the stories and listening to the sounds last night, I ran across one that I was sure was mislabeled: “X-Wing taking off” should have been “Millennium Falcon arriving over Yavin 4.” I pointed this out to my wife and my sister, who were skeptical that I could even tell the difference. So I whipped out my laptop, cued up the scenes in question — from the copy of Star Wars that I just happened to have on my hard drive — and proved my point. As Mr. Ng said, it is the kind of success on which reputations such as mine are constructed (dubious as that reputation may be).

Music hath charms to soothe the savage Star Wars fan


[The post is participating in Edward Copeland on Film’s John Williams blog-a-thon.]

One day in the summer of 1979, when I was not quite 13 years old, I opened a newspaper and learned not only that Star Wars was being re-released to theaters (ending a long drought — in those days there was no other way to see it), but that it would be preceded by a trailer for next year’s sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.

I fairly rocketed out of the bungalow, whooping and hollering, to spread the news. It was the first I’d heard that a sequel was in the works, and that the Star Wars oeuvre, which — can you imagine? — was all of two hours long,1 was about to be doubled.

The nine months between that August and the following May were the longest of my life. Beginning in February or so, desperate for crumbs — there was no TMZ or EW to keep me abreast of production news — I began cutting short my subway ride home from school each day, exiting at Woodhaven Boulevard to enter the Sam Goody music store that was there then, to see if they had the soundtrack album in stock yet. Invariably they didn’t and I’d walk the remaining mile and a half home.

…Until the day, a couple of dozen tries later, that they did have it in stock! I almost couldn’t believe it. I bought it and ran it home to play it. There, just as I expected, was the opening trumpet blast and fanfare, just as in the first movie (but was that a slight difference in instrumentation I heard? and oh! surprise! the fanfare now ends on a higher note than before). As I listened to the new but occasionally familiar music I scoured the liner notes for what information I could about the movie, which was still interminable weeks away. An asteroid field scene — cool! Jedi training! A city in the clouds! Hmm, “the effigy of Han Solo” — I didn’t like the sound of that (after I looked up the meaning of “effigy”).

The new Imperial March was impressive, of course. Princess Leia’s new theme was pretty, but it left me without the profound sense of yearning that the concert version of her original theme gave me three years earlier. Unable to visualize the on-screen action yet, I found much of the album a lot less listenable than my trusty old Star Wars LP’s, but I did play the more thrilling pieces to death — “The Asteroid Field” and “Hyperspace.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I would have made it those last few weeks before the movie’s premiere if it hadn’t been for John Williams’ music to tide me over. Now, oddly, decades later, my boys walk around the house humming the same John Williams tunes that I once did — with a few notable additions, such as his “Duel of the Fates,” a composition whose musical qualities are conspicuously out of proportion to the caliber of the movie it appears in.

But that’s always been true. The presence of a John Williams score in a bad movie can elevate it to watchability, even respectability. In a decent movie, his music is still usually the best thing about it. (I’m looking at you, Superman. And where would Close Encounters have been without him?) And even when a great movie has a John Williams score, long after one’s appetite for watching the movie has flagged, it’s the music that it’s possible to enjoy over and over without limit.

  1. Er, not including a certain very forgettable TV special. []

Forget “Han shot first,” there’s bigger fish to fry


Can it really have been more than a year since my last Star Wars-related post? Well, here’s a quickie:

In the original Star Wars, Princess Leia’s name is uttered three times: once by Governor Tarkin, once by C-3PO, and once by General Dodonna. They all pronounce it “lee-uh.”

So why is it that the whole world was saying “lay-uh” almost immediately after the film’s release, and how did that become the accepted pronunciation by the time of The Empire Strikes Back three years later?

Maybe it’s Mad magazine’s fault for calling her Princess Laidup in their parody. Maybe the fact that her last name sounds close to “orgasma” reinforces certain mental associations. Maybe Donny and Marie’s contemporaneous film, Goin’ Coconuts, had everyone thinking about Hawaiian leis.

Maybe it’s just that most people inexplicably saw the movie fewer than twenty times in 1977 and didn’t commit the entire soundtrack to memory. Well I’m not one of them, and I don’t care how many awesome “lay-uh” puns there are, I’m sticking with lee-uh.

Citizen George

Recently on the “parents” e-mail list at work, someone asked whether Hearst Castle would make a good trip for a 12-year-old, or whether they’d find it boring. Here’s what I wrote in response about how I’d make Hearst Castle interesting to a pre-teen.


Once upon a time there was a young filmmaker named George Lucas. Everyone thought he was a little weird, but one day he had a great idea. No one believed it could work, and he nearly killed himself making it a reality, but in the end he had Star Wars and he changed the world, and made himself rich.

What could he do with all his money? He could build a mecca for rebel filmmakers, that’s what, away from the suits and the beancounters of L.A. And so George began building Skywalker Ranch. But it was expensive, and he needed more money, so he hired some folks to make a new Star Wars movie. He hired some other folks to license Star Wars merchandise. And he hired still more folks to sell his splendid movie-production services to other filmmakers. He grew richer and richer, and built Skywalker Ranch bigger and bigger.

By now many years had passed. George Lucas was no longer young. His wife had left him. His friends, the other rebel filmmakers he’d hoped to bring into his fold, were scattered to the four winds, starting their own companies, making their own success. What could he do?

George could think of only one answer: get richer still. Build his empire bigger yet. He made more Star Wars movies! He took over the Presidio! He marketed cartoonish violence with no coherent story logic to young children! And he grew even more wealthy, but no less alone and unfulfilled. And he had become the very type of corporate executive whose influence he once sought to escape.

Some dark night in his cavernous mansion he will whisper the nickname of his beloved childhood hot rod, which no one will be around to hear, and expire.

William Randolph Hearst? He was the George Lucas of his day.

Update [15 June 2009]: George Lucas’ design for new building is twin of Hearst Castle centerpiece. Whoa.

The anti-Clone-Wars

My kids saw The Clone Wars when it was in theaters earlier this summer. Mercifully I didn’t have to; they went with a friend’s family. I’d seen and heard enough to know that, if the three prequel films were so bad that they made me “retroactively dislike Star Wars” (as I have been fond of hyperbolizing), The Clone Wars was so toxic it could have put me off movies altogether.

After they saw the movie we were subjected to many days of Anakin this and Count Dooku that. The occasional four- and six-year-old Yoda impressions were pretty amusing, but the rest was hard to take.

We hadn’t realized that the theatrical release was only an extended commercial for the new TV series, and we might never have found out (we don’t have cable) except that we were staying with friends in Seattle when the show premiered and the kids got a double dose of it, goosing their fervor.

But then the situation was defused by something that I wish I could say I had planned, because in hindsight it was obvious that a new batch of adventure stories with better writing and better acting and stories that actually engage the intellect would cleanse that Clone Wars garbage from my sons’ developing minds:

Classic Trek!

We’ve watched a couple of episodes a week for the past few weeks and the kids have stopped saying “roger roger” and “young Padawan.” They are now talking about “beaming down to the planet,” “repairing the anti-matter nacelles,” and “red alert, all hands to battle stations!” It warms my heart. Here is the birthday card that Jonah made for me a few days ago. It depicts the entire family in bed, watching an episode of Star Trek.

(It’s strange that he depicted an old-style aerial antenna on top of the TV. Watching all of this 1960’s programming may be affecting him in ways I hadn’t previously suspected — just like when Spock was trapped in that ice age and reverted to the primitive behavior of the Vulcans of that era!)

Film clips

[This post is participating in Culture Snob’s Self-Involvement blog-a-thon.]

Culture Snob has asked for blog posts about movies that elicited very personal reactions, a subject on which I’ve written at great length here at gee bobg. I don’t have anything new to write on that subject right now (except to publicly recite my mantra for upcoming movies that look cool: “Dark Knight, please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck”), so instead here’s a short retrospective of things I’ve said about how movies have affected my life.

To begin with, there’s Star Wars, which enveloped me in a miasma of intense fandom from age 10 to about age 20, at which point the mist began to clear and I finally started being able to think critically about it.

I had already developed the odd habit of recording, memorizing, and reciting the dialogue of miscellaneous TV shows when Star Wars came along and spurred me to perfect that strange hobby. Thanks to that (and to obsessive audio-recording of movies on HBO) I became something of an expert in verbatim, memorable movie dialogue, which contributed to the initial courting of my wife — I presented her with a transcript of The Princess Bride, written from memory, which amazed and delighted her (and which she still keeps handy) — and led me to a unique and lucrative entrepreneurial adventure.

(It was not my first movie-based entrepreneurial effort.)

Then there’s Koyaanisqatsi, the movie that was the first one I ever watched with my later-to-be-wife, and the strange way that came full circle when the aforementioned lucre ultimately got us invited to the gala premiere of the final film of the “Qatsi” trilogy.

More recently I’ve been better able to appreciate the message that some films have for parents and those facing middle age. Which is not to say I don’t sometimes return to those few films that transport me back to childhood by evoking New York the way I remember it.

The colors of Star Wars

[This post is participating in Too Many Projects’ Production Design blog-a-thon.]

As I’ve written before, there were a lot of things that bothered me about The Empire Strikes Back. But I was only thirteen when I saw it, and a diehard Star Wars fan. It took years even to admit I didn’t like it much, and decades to be able to articulate my complaints. But there was one problem with it that I was able to identify immediately in the summer of 1980: the soft, pinkish light in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It hadn’t looked that way in the original, where the cockpit was shades of grey and fluorescent lighting and harsh shadows.

Had Han Solo had an interior decorator revamp his ship between the two films?

I wondered why the new lighting scheme bothered me so much. It could have been simply that change is painful — after all, the Millennium Falcon was already the coolest spaceship in sci-fi history, and you don’t mess with success. But I felt there must be a more substantive reason, and as I searched for it, I slowly awoke to the importance of production design, and specifically the cleverness of the color palette in the original Star Wars.

In that film, space is black, sprinkled with white stars. Spaceships are off-white and gunmetal grey. Stormtroopers, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia wear white. Darth Vader wears black. The surface and buildings of Tatooine are shades of beige, bleached by the sun. Inside the Death Star: grey walls and floors, grey-uniformed officers, black prison cells.

Everything is stark. There is almost no color in Star Wars — except when lasers are firing, lightsabers are clashing, and spaceships are exploding. Then what might have been only a modestly exciting action sequence is amplified, by contrast with the rest of the film’s chromatic drabness, into literally a dazzling thrill.

In 1939, when The Wizard of Oz shifted abruptly from dreary greys into Technicolor, audiences were exhilarated. Ingeniously, the art directors of Star Wars took that one tremendous sensation, chopped it up into small doses, and meted it out to their audience in electrifying little jolts throughout the entire movie — a strategy that the designers of Empire, with its more liberal and therefore less effective use of color, unwisely chose to forgo.