Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Memories of Star Wars Past, a look towards Star Wars Future

"Robots don't have names. They have numbers."

Do I remember that explanatory whisper, now four decades ago? The year was 1977. The film - the first film I  ever saw - was, of course,  Star Wars. It was a time when going to the movie was something special, when it was the only way to see a movie. It would be over a decade before VHS would win its battle over Betamax and bring movies - albeit cropped or letterboxed - to our living rooms. And - while it would have been more thematically appropriate from my father - in my head I hear the whisper in my mother's voice. Was I confused by the opening in media res during the imperial attack on Princess Leia's ship? I think that I was, that I sensed that there should have been something before, but that's another memory I can't trust. Remember, I was five. If I was five. These are my thoughts and memories about that, and the new ones. 

Three years later came The Empire Strikes Back. I remember not believing the big reveal - thinking at the time that the villain was lying because he's a villain. Saturday morning cartoons had taught me that the hero always wins; I found it profoundly disorienting to walk out of the theater with our heroes at such a low point. Later, in discussion, I cried about the unfairness of it (I was, in my way, a sensitive child). This brings me to the earliest "boys don't cry" moment I can recall - an admonition from my father that I was crying not only about a movie character, but a movie character who hadn't even died. It came with the wholly empty threat that there would be no more movies for me if I couldn't handle the sad parts. 

I loved those movies, right through the last one -  with an uncritically, whole-heartedly, unconditionally. And for me, like for so many other kids, Star Wars grew past the movies into the real world. There were the action figures (I specifically remember an Obi Wan Kenobi with a lightsaber that extended from a hollowed out forearm), toy blaster guns, activity books. I remember the Jawa sand-crawler made from an empty milk-carton. The line-tracing game to reattach C3PO's severed arm. I remember bicycles as  X- and W-Wing fighters, the sidewalk the central trench of a new Death Star (not always, of course. Sometimes a bicycle was an orange Dodge with what I didn't know to be a horribly racist symbol painted on its roof. Sometimes it was a black Pontiac that talked to you. And sometimes - quite rarely - it was just a bicycle). There was an interesting quirk  to this play; my brother would always want to be Luke Skywalker, other kids Han Solo or even Chewbacca. I always wanted to be a background character - an unnamed rebel fighter pilot. It's not because I didn't want to be a hero, but it's because I wanted to be the hero, and that Luke's story was already told. Perhaps that was the genesis of my later life as a storyteller.

My feelings about the prequels are more complicated. There is, for me, something about the John Williams score that brings me back to that day in 1977 when I first learned what a movie was. Scroll the introductory text up along a black field of stars as the score plays and - for a moment - I'm again five years old. This fit thematically one  more time in my life, on May 18th, 2002. It was the first day in a long time I'd not spent the night with my then-fiance, the lovely Karine Suskin. The next day we'd wed, and we'd wanted to separate for the day to add a symbolic specialness to our official joining in matrimony. So, the day before, full of nervous energy and hope and excitement I let Lucas take me back, accepting this movie as a bookend to my childhood.

It wasn't a very good movie.

You know that it wasn't; the characters were flat, the comic relief character was, arguably, a stereotype. The plot hinged on coincidences implausible enough to make Dickens blush. It was, as it was happening, pleasant enough. I saw it in a nice, single-screen movie theater (the Syosset Universal Artists, long since gone). It was an experience that, after it ended, felt somewhat empty. There wasn't any more there than there was on the surface and, in some ways, less. The good guys were good. The bad guys were bad. It was great spectacle, but not great fiction.

Today, as a new set of films is approaching, I'm reminded of this and reflecting on the ongoing experience. Horror writer Joe Hill said it quite well in  a discussion on Twiter:

He's right. The film we now call Episode IV: A New Hope was, at the  time, the best movie I'd ever seen. It was also the only movie I'd ever seen. It's all tangled up with the cabinet full of action figures half of them missing their little plastic blasters, in the discussions about Darth Vader's real identity, in the pretend X-Wing fighter dogfights, the newspaper comic strip serial, and all of the things that go into a spectacle.

All of the flaws that I mentioned from the prequel trilogy? The reliance on coincidence, the stereotyping, the sloppy storytelling? Characters who are little more than pure archetypes? All of those flaws exist in the original movies. Coincidence? The entire plot of all three films hinges on Luke Skywalker happening to need to buy a droid at exactly the  time the Jawas had captured R2D2 and C3PO - and that of all the people on Tattooine,  he happened to be the one to buy them (instead of any others). Stereotyping? Is the shiny-gold cowardly and somewhat effeminate  robot any less a gay stereotype than the broken-English speaking Jar Jar Binks is an African American stereotype? Speaking of African-Americans, is it coincidence that they chose to dub an African American man's voice over the black-clad villain?

Flaws aside, I still love those films the way that I love Cadbury Creme eggs, the way that I love milk mixed with Coca Cola,the way I love a McDonald's hamburger. These things are, objectively speaking, terrible. I can acknowledge that and still, on very rare occasions, indulge the part of me that wants to look back. Perhaps I will indulge that part of me this winter; I will confess that the second trailer - the one showing the Imperial Star Destroyer half-buried in what I assume ot be the desert sands of Tattoine - strikes a chord with me. The Star Destroyer and X-Wing are such powerful icons of my youth, it's hard to not be drawn in, even if just for a moment. Whether that moment will sustain a whole movie is to be determined.

What I'll not indulge is the romantic notion that these are the greatest films of all times, and that the judgements I made at the age of five still stand today. Tastes change and people change. I stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire because I'm not the person I was when George RR Martin wrote A Game of Thrones twenty years ago; I'm certainly not the person I was nearly four decades ago when Lucas gave us the first of the Star Wars films.

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