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Sunday, April 09, 2006


Remember when you were a little kid and your folks took you to the movies for the first time? I can’t speak for everyone else out there, but I still have clear memories of the first movie I saw in the theater, namely a now obscure animated feature called GULLIVER’S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON. I didn’t know at the time that it was a dubbed Japanese import, but I will never forget the feeling of having the movie theater’s Stygian blackness envelop me and remove me from the mundane world, placing me firmly in the fantasy world the flickered onscreen. The largeness of the space only accentuated my own three-year-old smallness in that big, cushioned seat, and being utterly sucked in by the storytelling made me feel a sense of magic and wonder unique to the movies for the first time in my life.

For me, going to the movies was that most special of treats, and having proven to my parents that I could be well-behaved and sit spellbound, I went to a hell of a lot of flicks in those pre-VCR days, even attractions that were distinctly not for kids (THE GODFATHER and SERPICO immediately spring to mind). My first favorite film was the lavish live action Disney version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (one of many influences that lead me to think of becoming a marine biologist, a field that I did not end up pursuing, but still study as an amateur to this day), eclipsed five years later by JAWS, and, yes, all those stories that you’ve heard about how it literally scared people off out of the oceans for years are absolutely the gospel truth (my mom tells me that after seeing Hitchcock’s PSYCHO in 1960 she was too terrified to take a shower if no one else was in the house for quite some time). Such was the power of cinema in the days before “films by committee.”

But no movie-going experience before or since has utterly shaken me to the core as both a film fan and a human being as seeing the original STAR WARS on opening night in May of 1977, an event that occurred quite by accident.

My father had recently moved back to the New York area after nearly two years near Washington, D.C. (where I had visited him during the Bicentennial and we had seen the legendary INFRA-MAN as a first-run movie), and in one of our many vain attempts to foster any kind of real parent/child relationship we drove into Manhattan one evening, intent on seeing Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL. When we arrived in the city, we were dismayed to find that every theater that had the movie was sold out for all shows that night and we were simply shit out of luck.

We wandered about Times Square for some time, trying to figure out what to do next, when my dad spotted a movie poster outside the Astor Plaza for some film called STAR WARS. There were no people on line for it, and neither one of us was surprised by that since we’d never heard word one about it. Lacking anything better to do, my dad looked at me and said, “You want to give this a shot?” I said, “Why not?” and we entered the nearly deserted foyer. Once popcorn and sodas had been obtained, we took our seats among the roughly eighty people in the place. Soon the lights dimmed and we readied our selves for what would probably be another cheesy sci-fi potboiler (my parents may not have agreed on much, but neither of them ever forgave me for dragging them to see the horrendous Italian borefest WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS). Assorted trailers came and went, and then the familiar signature tune and logo of 20th Century Fox pictures lit up the screen. Then the audio abruptly went silent and the screen went black, save for tiny blue letters that read, “A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…”

Then BAM! A blaring musical sting exploded out of the speakers, swiftly cohering into a lush orchestral arrangement, as the camera pulled back on a massive star field to reveal the words “Star Wars.” As the title faded further into the distance, a text crawl like those found in the old Flash Gordon serial chapter plays that my father loved during his youth set the scene for the audience.

Then a multi-engined spacecraft hauled ass over the camera, firing blast after blast behind it, clearly in an attempt to shake off some pursuing menace. As the embattled cruiser flew into the horizon, the pointed white tip of an obviously bigger vessel loomed into view, itself returning volley after volley at its fleeing prey. And the huge, wedge-shaped ship loomed further onto the screen, giving a clue as to its massive scale. And it kept coming. And coming. And coming. How fucking big was the damned thing??? With hugeness like that on display, all I could think of was that this is what a space opera helmed by Cecil B. DeMille would have looked like.

And my initial perception was not far from the mark at all; the audience was dropped smack dab into a fully- realized universe of space fantasy, dripping with all manner of indescribable aliens, creatures, robots, spaceships, heroes — both competent and otherwise — lightsaber-wielding warriors, mind-boggling state-of-the-art visual effects, and an asthmatic black-clad villain whose helmet made his head look like a big cock. All of which got capped off with the most spectacular space battle ever seen on film up to that time. In short, everything a lad just a month short of his twelfth birthday would want to see, with the exception of some luscious boobies (which we kinda got anyway since Princess Leia was obviously unencumbered during her stay on the Death Star, especially when she was soaking wet in the trash compactor).

When the credits rolled, the entire audience stood and cheered like zealots at a revival meeting; without knowing it, we had become the first generation of STAR WARS cultists. Upon reaching the outer lobby I purchased the movie program, and pored over every minute detail of the photos that would soon become familiar across the globe. And as my dad and I drove back to his apartment in White Plains neither of us said a word. We were both simply too stunned by the experience.

When I returned to school in Westport that Monday, I ranted and raved like a religious fanatic about STAR WARS, and my sixth grade schoolmates looked at me as though they were witnessing my utter mental breakdown. The saddest part was that there was no way for my wild tales to be proven until the film opened in town, something that didn’t happen for another month since this was the days long before multiplexes and saturation openings. But in the end I was proven right, and all of my adolescent contemporaries fell under the spell of STAR WARS and “drank the Kool Aid,” so to speak. And the rest was history.

That’s my story, but please write in with your tale of seeing STAR WARS for the first time, especially if you saw it when it came out. It’s kind of hard to communicate what a kick in the ass that movie gave to the general public at the time, especially when trying to get it across to this current generation who are victims of George Lucas’ — and most of Hollywood’s, for that matter — creative bankruptcy.


Anonymous said...

We saw it in a GIANT wide screen, old fashioned movie palace in Hollywood, CA (visiting my family during the summer). Of course, me and sister were entranced!

On the drive back to my grandparents house, my folks said, "Wow, that was just like the World War II movies we used to see when we were kids!" I was horrified until I saw some John Wayne movies on TV later in life.

They broke it down for me:

Darth Vader and stormtroopers = Nazis and the SS
Luke Skywalker = small-town boy called into service
Rebels = US Army
Leia = daughter of disgraced Senator/Jewish scientist/patriotic billionaire
Han Solo = re-motivateed cynical WWI hot dogger
Death Star destruction = airplane dogfight finale

By the time we parked, I was very deflated.

Anonymous said...

he he he , i was three but of course i remember... My abuelita was visiting from Chile and she gave my older brother and I each 20 bucks (no shit, 20 bucks was a mint in those days). We walked up to the crappy mini-mall that loomed near our low-budget townhouse rental to go blow it. I bought one of those pot bellied teddy bears w/ the tag that read "hug me" (a hard decision between him and the velcro handed hugging monkeys). Then my bro dragged me to see Star Wars, which of course I was eager to do, since I worshipped him. I remember the feeling of "how big is this ship?" also, and a lot of "I don't get it..." as well. But I hugged "tubby" (my new bear) through the whole thing, and haven't stopped loving up on him since. It was no hype, no lines, just me going so I could be with my brother. that's what I remember.

Anonymous said...

Hugging Monkeys!!! I had those... Loved them, a gift from my maternal grandmother. Anywhooo.. My Star Wars Experience was a good one too.. But my 5.5 year old twins have dragged a lot of my memory from me....

Here's what I do remember... My family went together to the movies, a rarity since we were were very poor. I remember loving the movie not only for all its cool effects, but for the fact that my brother and i had something to talk about and agree on.

Bunche, you are such a great writer/blogger! I always enjoy reading your blogs. They move me :) XO xoxo

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather took my sister and I to a matinee in Astoria. It was was at one of those old theaters that had one huge screen. I remember my Grandfather getting annoyed that a goddamned matinee was so packed. A few years later, it was broken up into 5 postage-stamp ripoff screens...


I had the same reaction you did at that opening space battle, by the way. It looked like that ship would never end.

How did such a great series devolve so badly into "The Phantom Man-Ass" and "Clones"?

It seems like Lucas made a movie-by-commitee even though he was the only one on the commitee. Inexcusable.

Anonymous said...

STAR WARS was the first movie I (at the age of three) was able to sit all the way through without needing to take a walk, go to the bathroom, get some Twizzlers, etc. My father tells me that I basically froze when the first Star Destroyer appeared, and didn't move or say anything else for the rest of the movie after Darth Vader first appeared on screen (at which point I whispered 'he's the bad guy, Daddy.').

The preview was, if I recall correctly, for YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE.

I saw STAR WARS something like three times in the theater, maybe more -- shows were relatively inexpensive in Kansas at that time, and I was a little kid, so my parents could afford to take me to a lot of movies (Godzilla movies were still being run in the theaters back then).

As big a deal as seeing STAR WARS was, my first viewing of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was the one that will always strike me as the high-water mark of film openings. I saw it opening night, in a semi-run-down single-screen theater in Norwich, CT (the theater followed the old Ziegfield model, but without the balconies, as I recall...this place had Art Deco gargoyles and stained glass -- so much better than the new generic chain theaters). When Vader revealed his secret to Luke (spoiler: he's Luke's father), I started quietly sobbing. And then Han Solo was KILLED by that guy whose action figure was a free sendaway! I didn't even know that the guy was going to be a bad guy, and here he is killing Han Solo!!

After the movie, my parents led me out of the theater, past the long line (leading up a hill and around the corner, maybe even the block) for the next show, trying their best to get me away from the crowd before I spoiled the shock endings for an entire show's worth of people (ah, the days before the internet, when it was possible to actually encounter something without any spoilers).

A month or two later, my father and I were in a record store on a Saturday afternoon, and he pointed out the new KISS album. He told me that he'd pick it up for me if he wanted to.

"Naw, they were okay when I was a little kid, but not now [I was six and a half]"

"Well, you don't need to say you don't like them because I don't like can like your own things! What would have happened if Luke Skywalker had decided that he had to only do what his fath--"


I then started crying.

Jared said...

I think I'm the rarity of our generation. I have no great love of the movies, as a kid I would always rather be outside playing or reading comics, nor do I have any great love for Star Wars. I think one of the reasons it was so popular was because it was the primary religious experience for so many people. It is filled with spiritual ideas told in a classic adventure filled style. That and spaceships that go screaming by.

Anonymous said...

Saw Star Wars in July '77 in either the Central Plaza Twin or Movieland in Yonkers, NY. The buzz was pretty strong by that point, and I was among the last of my group of friends to see it. To my 12 year old mind, it was pretty staggering stuff. Even at that young age I hated most of what passed for visual effects,(I had not yet seen 2001) and the effects in Star Wars seemed revolutionary. There was also a sense of fun, of repackaging older themes like Flash Gordon, which had been shown a year or so previously on WNET 13 in New York. Even that early in the summer of 1977, kids were already bragging about how many times they'd seen it, so I was happy just to know that I'd finally joined the club. In a world before the internet, cable, vcr's, dvd's etc, it's hard to emphasize just how much of a mania there was for this movie. It is doubtful if it will ever be repeated.

Anonymous said...

"It is filled with spiritual ideas told in a classic adventure filled style. That and spaceships that go screaming by."

And wookies! Let's not forget wookies.

Looking at the current souless, corporate climate of movies-by-commitee Hollywood, I wonder if another movie will ever have a similar impact ever again...

I bet not.

Anonymous said...

"I think I'm the rarity of our generation. I have no great love of the movies, as a kid I would always rather be outside playing or reading comics, nor do I have any great love for Star Wars."

BLASPHEMER!!! I'll bet if we throw you in water, you'll float...

Anonymous said...

I first saw Star Wars when it opened in my local drive in. My parents took me my brother, and sister and we sat on the hood of the car watching some of the coolest space battles take place.

Looking back it was strange of my parents to get it at all, they hated science fiction but we kids were amazed.

Anonymous said...

"When I returned to school in Westport that Monday, I ranted and raved like a religious fanatic about STAR WARS, and my sixth grade schoolmates looked at me as though they were witnessing my utter mental breakdown."

I was 7 in 1977 and I remember coming to school and all of my friends slathering at the mouth about Star Wars- saying they'd seen it 5, 7 8 times- and in my young brain I said "No way they're gonna trap me." Which is exactly why it took me 3 years to see the first Star Wars movie. In no way was I going to get caught following the crowd! Empire turned me around though. That's a quality flick.


Anonymous said...

And I actually went to go see Zorro instead of Star Wars - i had the choice and took the path less taken - and it ultimately made very little difference!

Anonymous said...

I went to see it with my dad - at the theater you used to usher at, actually. Star Wars fever had hit, and the line was HUGE. They were counting people as they let us in, and - inevitably - when they reached my father, they said that he was the last person who could come in - and I couldn't. The theater was full.

I was crushed, I'm sure. Got to see it later though, many times, so it worked out all right.

Hey! What's this I hear about Lucas releasing the first three movies in their original theatrical-release editions? As in, none of this "Han was just defending himself" bullshit?

Fucking Lucas! He SWORE he'd never release the good versions! He needs a damned good cock-punching.

Laser Rocket Arm said...

Been reading through your blog and enjoying it immensely, so better late than never!

I saw "Star Wars" in July 1977 at a little movie theater in Merritt Island, FL, down the street from my aunt's house (we traveled down from New Jersey every summer). I was almost 11, and the buzz was just starting to really pick up about the movie. I remember instantly falling in love with Harrison Ford and thinking that the explosion of the Death Star was the coolest thing ever.