25 May 2007


Incredibly, the original "Star Wars"—yeah, yeah technically it's the fourth installment but the first produced all right?—is 30 years old today (that makes me--well, let's just say I’m limping dangerously close to what a certain Correllian smuggler would term an “old fossil”…). It's since become such a phenomenon that few will remember that once-upon-a-time in a not-so-far away Hollywood, California, young filmmaker George Lucas, fresh from his surprise success with "American Graffiti", couldn't give away his ambitious space-opera, until he won over Alan Ladd, Jr., the head of 20th Century Fox who put up the relatively modest $7.5M (which ballooned to about $11M)and let Lucas keep the merchandising rights, figuring he'd be lucky to get a kiddie matinee hit out of it--something to run on double bills with “Jack The Giant Killer” and vintage Three Stooges shorts perhaps--if nothing else.

This story of “a boy, a girl, and a universe” opened on just 2 screens and expanded to 43 within a week (to compare, "Spider-Man 3" recently opened on 4,000) to surprisingly positive critical notices (go back and read 'em--the pundits turned on it when it became a smash) and to everyone's surprise (and Ladd's delight, suffice to say), became an immediate word-of-mouth hit that spawned more prints, repeat viewings, and annual re-releases and landed it at the top of the list of all-time box office hits, dethroning "Jaws" and "The Godfather". It was even nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director--unheard of today--losing (not entirely undeservingly, sez my inner more adult sensibility, but yeah, it was robbed) to Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

In my hometown of Pembroke, Ontario, there were only two movie theatres and neither of them qualified as "first run". Usually, a new release had to play out its run in nearby nation's-capital Ottawa first, then we'd get the broken, emulsion-scratched print for maybe a couple of days--most films didn't play the town of 12,000 people for even a week. By the time "Star Wars" made it to the Centre Theatre (most big ticket studio releases played The O'Brien as a single feature, so that it ended up at the sleazier double-bill grindhouse was a rare thing), it was October of 1977, and I'd already read the Alan Dean Foster novel (credited to Lucas), owned the Marvel Comics adaptation with art by the great Howard Chaykin (before someone at the Bullpen thought they’d expand the saga by adding a green, humanoid bunny), worn out the vinyl soundtrack LP, and memorized every Starlog article going back a year. I even kept a scrapbook of reviews and clippings, mostly consisting of the serialized novelization the since-defunct Ottawa Journal ran in its Arts & Entertainment section. The Centre would allow you to sit through a movie twice for a single admission, so I went every night for the seven days it ran, and again each summer that it was re-issued (with cooler poster art) until its first official sequel came along and eclipsed it. The trailer attached to the print was for Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman”—thanks to the theatre’s bad audio, I couldn’t figure out a single word Alan Bates said (y’know I’ve never seen the film—does it all work out for Jill?).

Unlike some, I can't say that "Star Wars" single-handedly turned me on to filmmaking--I was already an obsessive movie buff and a budding auteur (thanks to one of my teachers, who arranged to videotape a play I'd written)--but what it did unlike any other film I'd seen up until then was cement the idea in me (and legions of others) that anything I could imagine could be put on screen with a degree of realism and seriousness unlike most of what passed for genre filmmaking in those days ("Planet Of The Apes", "2001", and the original "Star Trek" were too-rare exceptions). That someone else out there got it. That millions of people, most of them not committed sci-fi fans, would line up to see it. More than once.

Still, it was hard to find anyone at the time who would admit to liking it, let alone having seen it at all. Most seemed to be "dragged" to it (the same people, presumably, who didn’t buy “Thriller”, reportedly still the number one album of all time). My teachers were--quelle surprise--damning and derisive--it took a good decade before the educational establishment woke up to its powerful and highly educational mythic undercurrents. To admit to being a fan was then--much as it is now--an exposing of one's "geek" status in an era where people flocked to see not "Nashville" or "The Conversation" (sorry Mr. Biskind), but impersonal hackwork like "Smokey And The Bandit" and "Airport '75". Still, "Star Wars" helped to legitimize science-fiction--just a little bit.

Most of all, Lucas made the story of its production readily available, with then unheard-of backstage access, so that when we read of his modest (Modesto?) background and his childhood obsessions with serials and pulps and his education at USC's film program, kids like me who were scratching Super-8 emulsion to fake laser beams felt like we actually had a shot at the big screen.

It's hard to convince a younger generation today just how ground-breaking and significant "Star Wars" was that summer--I can only imagine that The Beatles on Ed Sullivan or perhaps hearing the first line of sync-sound dialogue in "The Jazz Singer" would be the equivalent sensations. Inevitably, anything that mutates into such a touchstone of global popular culture becomes blithely dismissed as kitsch and while "Star Wars" has spawned too-many asinine imitations, dubious digital "improvements", long-overdue prequels of debatable value (I find them redundant, but still decent flicks taken on their own terms)--and, oh yeah, that abominable 1978 Thanksgiving Special that nearly destroyed my childhood--I'm still in awe of that first entry's giddy invention, superb plotting and pacing, subversive message (what we have here is a pro-terrorism manifesto, but I'll leave that sort of thing to "Clerks"), and above all, 100% analog-driven heart and soul--which will shock the killjoys and the Cahier Du Cinema flunkies to admit was the main reason daydreamers like me lined up to see this damned thing again and again in the first place.

(Gotta say though, the climactic trench battle is still probably the greatest aerial combat sequence ever realized on film—garbage mattes and all.)

It's probably a little too tidy to suggest that I saw something of myself in farm boy Luke's longing to flee his oppressive homestead and travel the stars--if anything, I was much more taken with the mystical grace of Obi-Wan and the bemused bravado of wily Han Solo. Unfortunately, the version I'll be watching tonight has him not shooting Greedo first--I just couldn't bring myself to pony up the dough to buy the original theatrical version on DVD...after Super 8 and VHS (at least three times) and CED disc and Laserdisc (a $250 boxed set) and already one DVD boxed set, you've made enough money off of me, George...so adult Robert will wait for the Blu-Ray, or the 3D version you’ve apparently promised.

But next time, will you fix Carrie Fisher’s British accent?