Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Force will be with you. Always.


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The 30th anniversary of George Lucas' beloved space opera is upon us, and it seems like the blogosphere is reeling with thoughts, memories, and reflections on what it is that makes these movies so special. Star Wars has, and will always have, a special place in my heart as the movies that transformed me into a full-blown movie lover, taught me what a film director was, and most importantly, inspired me to make movies myself. Despite all the critical revisionism that the film "killed" the American era of gritty, realistic and self-reflective cinema in the 70's, despite Lucas's transformation into a portly, CGI-obsessed, one-man marketing machine who just can't seem to stop tinkering with his universe, and despite just how damn uncool it might be to be labeled as such - I am, and will always be, an undying Star Wars fan. That's just how it is. I traveled to the galaxy far, far away as a child and never came back.

My first experience with Lucas' space opera was at the age of nine, when the trilogy was re-released in their "Special Edition" forms. My dad told me he would love to take my sister and I to see them, and to tell the truth, I really wasn't that enthusiastic. I had seen reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV here and there, and thought it would be pretty much the same thing - a lot of tedious chitchat from guys in pyjamas on board a spaceship. (That's no disrespect to Star Trek, which I also love - but it's much more of a cereberal, adult-oriented universe.) Of course, my dad set me right. He hauled my ass down to the now long-since-gone North Adams Cinemas, bought me a tub of popcorn, and insisted that I would love what I was about to see. And of course, he was right. From the moment I heard John Williams' blaring score for the first time, I was hooked. The awe-inspiring sight of Princess Leia's Rebel Blockade Runner soaring over my head, followed closely behind my the seemingly neverending Star Destroyer, filled me to the brim with a feeling of "holy shit, we're not in Kansas anymore." And from then on, there was no going back.

I saw both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (which, at the time, was my undisputed favorite) in theaters as well. I was awed at the Battle of Hoth, shocked at Vader's revelation to Luke at Cloud City, creeped out by the Emperor and Jabba the Hutt, and fascinated and moved by the spiritual implications of the Force. I collected the action figures, read the "Expanded Universe" novels, and scoured newstands for magazines related to George Lucas. I was already vaguely aware that it was someone's job to be in charge of making a movie happen, and such people were called "directors".... if memory serves, I first became aware of this when I saw Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in a London theater, preceeded by his short film Vincent.... but when I began to read up on and learn about how George Lucas went back and tweaked his vision, and his philosophy that a work of art could evolve over time, I was truly impressed. Who, it seemed, had it better than him? To a nine-year-old boy, it seemed like he had the greatest job on earth.

I recieved Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, the companion book to the Smithsonian Museum's exhibition of the films' props and costumes, as a Christmas present, and reading it was my first step into understanding the connections between the films and the "Hero's Journey" as it was explained by Joseph Campbell. Luke Skywalker was St. George, Jason of the Argonauts, Oedipus and Odysseus all rolled into one, and the films were the culmination of all human stories told since long before the first written word. Not only, it seemed, was Star Wars "cool" to me personally on a purely entertaining level, but they had meaning. They had weight. They were important. Their appeal, to myself and others, had something to say about us as human beings.

When I was in middle school, I saw The Phantom Menace on opening day with a crowdful of plastic lightsaber wielding dorks, and I will tell you right here and now that I loved it - Gungans and all. Three years later, I saw Attack of the Clones as a high school freshman, and while I found it uneven, the joyousy mad nerd-roar the audience let out when Yoda lit up his saber and let loose on Christopher Lee was completely magic. But even so, as the best-loved things of childhood often do, my adoration for Star Wars started to wane a little bit during adolescence. I became friends and eventually roommates with another film fanatic who introduced me to the work of Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, Ingmar Bergman and Francis Ford Coppola - "deep" filmmakers who, as he delighted to phrase it, had "something to say." It seemed that Lucas' galaxy of spaceships, lightsabers, droids, Wookiees, and good and evil was at odds with with these films. I began to regard Star Wars as - dare I say it? - somewhat childish, something I was done with. Like a relationship which had grown cold, I still felt affectionate towards it, but the flames of passion had died. Certainly Lucas' marketing of the films, and his "if you don't like it, screw you" attitude towards tinkering with his universe helped this. After all, the from a marketing perspective, all my treasured experience of seeing the movies for the first time had been was a cleverly-executed marketing scheme to sell the trilogy to a new generation. Much like the hoardes of stuffed Mickey Mouses in the Disney Store can make you forget how powerful Fantasia and Pinocchio are, the Disneyland-like fascade of Lucas's galactic empire began to seem superficial. And it was with this attitude that I went to see Revenge of the Sith, long after most of my friends had seen it, in a dreary theater with only eight or nine people in attendance. I wasn't the enthusiastic kid for whom waiting in line for The Empire Strikes Back's Special Edition was equal to ten birthdays and Christmases. It was a purely obligatory gesture. I went in with the intention of bidding farewell to my childhood.

And yet, while watching that film, I transformed inside. No - transformed is the wrong word - I rediscovered myself. Despite the occasional phony-looking CGI shot and clunky line of dialogue (the film isn't perfect, I still retain that none of the prequels are) I found myself being reminded why I loved Star Wars in the first place. Seeing Anakin Skywalker fall from grace and become Darth Vader, but knowing that he would eventually be redeemed by his son - and being reminded of that fact when Uncle Owen held his infant nephew Luke up to Tattooine's binary sunset - released something within me that made me realize why this universe had won me over to begin with. It isn't a childish appeal, it's a human appeal. At the heart of the entire saga is the story of the war within oneself, the conflict between the dark and the light. It's something we struggle with every day, merely enhanced with laser guns, space dogfights, a pinch of Homer and a smidgen of Shakespearean drama.

Of course, after that screening I gained a better understanding of both the films and myself. Star Wars was not at odds with my roommate's "something to say" auteurs, it complemented their work effortlessly, and vice versa. After pretending like they weren't all that for a number of years, my adoration came full circle and I was right back where I started. I remembered, and continue to remember, how great the films are and how truly importand they are to me. I'm endlessly thankful to George Lucas' imagination and genius, and for his six-part gift to the whole world, which played an undeniable part in making me who I am today.

Happy 30th, and may the Force be with you.