A Galaxy Not So Far Away
Writers and Artists on Twenty-Five Years of Star Wars
By Glenn Kenny Henry
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2002 Glenn Kenny
All rights reserved.
13, 1977, 21
1. In the summer of 1977 I saw Star Wars — the original, which is all I want to discuss here — twenty-one times. Better to blurt this at the start so I'm less tempted to retreat from what still seems to me a sort of raw, howling confession, one I've long hidden in shame. Again, to pin myself like a Nabokovian butterfly (no high-lit reference is going to bail me out here, I know) to my page in geek history: I watched Star Wars twenty-one times in the space of four months. I was that kid alone in the ticket line, slipping past ushers who'd begun to recognize me, muttering in impatience at a urinal before finding my favorite seat. That was me, occult as a porn customer, yes, though I've sometimes denied it. Now, a quarter century later, I'm ready for my close-up. Sort of.
2. That year, I was thirteen and likely as ideal an audience member as any mogul could have drooled for. Say every kid in the U.S. with even the passingest fondness for comic books or adventure fiction, any kid with a television, even, had bought a ticket for the same film in a single summer: blah, blah, right, that's what happened. So figure that for every hundred kids who traveled an ordinary path — cool movie, wouldn't mind seeing it again with my friends — there might be one who'd make himself ill returning to the cookie jar five or six times — it's really still good the fourth time, I swear! — before copping to a tummy ache. Next, figure that for each five hundred, one or two would slip into some brain-warped identificatory obsession — I am Star Wars, Star Wars am me, goo goo ga joob — and return to the primal site often enough to push into the realm of trance and memorization. That's me, with my gaudy twenty-one, like DiMaggio's fifty-six. But what actually occurred within the secret brackets of that experience? What emotions lurk inside that ludicrous temple of hours? What the fuck was I thinking?
3. Every one of those twenty-one viewings took place at the Loew's Astor Plaza on Forty-fourth Street, just off Times Square. I'd never seen a movie there before (and unless you count The Empire Strikes Back, I didn't again until three years ago — The Matrix). And I've still never seen Star Wars anywhere else. The Astor Plaza was a low, deep-stretched hall with a massive screen and state-of-the-art sound, and newly enough renovated to be free of too much soda-rotted carpet, a plague among New York theaters in those days. Though architecturally undistinguished, it was a superior place to see anything, I suppose. But for me it was a shrine meant for just one purpose — I took it as weirdly significant that "Astor" could be rearranged into "astro"—and in a very New Yorker –coverish way I believed it to be the only real and right place to see Star Wars, the very ground zero of the phenomenon. I felt a dim but not at all urgent pity for any benighted fools stuck watching it elsewhere. I think I associated the Astor Plaza with the Death Star, in a way. Getting in always felt like an accomplishment, both elevating and slightly dangerous.
4. Along those lines, I should say it was vaguely unnerving to be a white kid in spectacles routinely visiting Times Square by subway in the middle of the '70s. Nobody ever said anything clearly about what was wrong or fascinating about that part of the city we lived in — the information was absorbed in hints and mutterings from a polyphony of sources. In fact, though I was conscious of a certain seamy energy in those acres of sex shows and drug dealers and their sidewalk-lurking customers, I was never once hassled (and this was a time when my home neighborhood, in Brooklyn, was a minefield). But the zone's reputation ensured I'd always plan my visits to fall wholly within summer's long daylight hours.
5. Problem: it doesn't seem at all likely that I went to the movie alone the first time, but I can't remember who I was with. I've polled a few of my likeliest friends from that period, but they're unable to help. In truth I can't recall a "first time" in any real sense, though I do retain a flash memory of the moment the prologue first began to crawl in titled perspective up the screen, an Alice in Wonderland doorway to dream. I'd been so primed, so attuned and ready to love it (I remember mocking my friend Evan for his thinking that the title meant it was going to be some kind of all-star cavalcade of a comedy, like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, or Smokey and the Bandit) that my first time was gulped impatiently, then covered quickly in the memory of return visits. From the first I was "seeing it again." I think this memory glitch is significant. I associate it with my practice of bluffing familiarity with various drug experiences, later (not much later). My refusal to recall or admit to a first time was an assertion of maturity: I was always already a Star Wars fanatic.
6. I didn't buy twenty-one tickets. My count was amassed seeing the movie twice in a day over and over again. And one famous day (famous to myself) I sat through it three times. That practice of seeing a film twice through originated earlier. Somebody — my mother? — had floated the idea that it wasn't important to be on time for a movie, or even to check the screening times before going. Instead, moviegoing in Brooklyn Heights or on Fulton Street with my brother or with friends, we'd pop in at any point in the story, watch to the end, then sit through the break and watch the beginning. Which led naturally, if the film was any good, to staying past the original point of entry to see the end twice. Which itself led to routinely twice-watching a movie we liked, even if we hadn't been late. This was encouraged, partly according to a general "steal this book"–ish anticapitalist imperative for taking freebies in my parents' circle in the '70s. Of course somebody — my mother? — had also figured out a convenient way to get the kids out of the house for long stretches.
7. I hate arriving late for movies now and would never watch one in this broken fashion. It seems to me, though, that I probably learned something about the construction of narratives from the practice. The lifelong moviegoing habit, which does originate for me with Star Wars, is that of sitting in movie theaters alone. I probably only had company in the Loew's Astor Plaza four or five times. The rest of my visits were solitary, which is certainly central to any guesses I'd make about the emotional meanings of the ritual viewings.
8. I still go to the movies alone, all the time. In the absenting of self that results — so different from the quality of solitude at my writing desk — this seems to me as near as I come in my life to any reverent or worshipful or meditational practice. That's not to say it isn't also indulgent, with a frisson of guilt, a stolen privilege every time. I'm acutely conscious of this joyous guilt in the fact that when as a solitary moviegoer I take a break to go to the bathroom I can return to another part of the theater and watch from a different seat. I first discovered this thrill during my Star Wars summer, and it's one that never diminishes. The rupture of the spectator's contract with perspective feels as transgressive as wife-swapping.
9. The function or dysfunction of my Star Wars obsession was paradoxical. I was using the movie as a place to hide, sure. That's obvious. At the same time, this activity of hiding inside the Loew's Astor Plaza, and inside my private, deeper-than-yours, deeper-than-anyone's communion with the film itself, was something I boasted widely about. By building my lamebrain world record for screenings (fat chance, I learned later) I was teaching myself to package my own craving for solitude, and my own obsessive tendencies, as something to be admired. You can't join me inside this box where I hide, I was saying, but you sure can praise the box. You're permitted to marvel at me for going inside.
10. What I was hiding from is easy, though. My parents had separated a couple of years earlier. Then my mother had begun having seizures, been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and had the first of two surgeries. The summer of Star Wars she was five or six months from the second, unsuccessful surgery, and a year from dying.
11. I took my brother, and he stayed through it twice. We may have done that together more than once — neither of us clearly remembers. I took a girl, on a quasi date: Alissa Simon, the sister of my best friend, Joel. I took my mother. I tried to take my grandmother.
12. That same summer I once followed Alissa Simon to a ballet class at Carnegie Hall and hung around the studio, expressing a polite curiosity which was cover for another, less polite curiosity. The instructor was misled or chose to misunderstand — a thirteen-year-old boy willing to set foot inside a ballet studio was a commodity, a raw material. I was offered free classes, and the teacher called my house and strong-armed my parents. I remember vividly my mother's pleasure in refusing on my behalf — I was too much of a coward — and how strongly she fastened on the fact that my visit had had nothing to do with any interest in ballet. For years this seemed to me an inexplicable cruelty in my mother towards the ballet teacher. Later I understood that in those first years of adolescence I was giving off a lot of signals to my parents that I might be gay. I was a delicate, obedient, and bookish kid, a constant teacher's pet. Earlier that year my father had questioned me regarding a series of distended cartoon noses I'd drawn in ballpoint on my loose-leaf binder — they had come out looking a lot like penises. And my proclaimed favorite Star Wars character was the tweaking English robot, C-3PO.
13. I did and do find C-3PO sexy. It's as if a strand of DNA from Fritz Lang's fetishized girl robot in Metropolis has carried forward to the bland world of Star Wars. Also, whereas Carrie Fisher's robes went to her ankles, C-3PO is obviously naked, and ashamed of it.
14. Alissa Simon thought the movie was okay (my overstated claims generally cued a compensating shrug in others) and that was our last date, if it was a date. We're friends now.
15. I don't know how much of an effort it was for my mother to travel by subway to a movie theater in Manhattan by the summer of '77, but I do know it was unusual, and that she was certainly doing it to oblige me. It might have been one of our last ventures out together, before it was impossible for her. I remember fussing over rituals inside the theater, showing her my favorite seat, and straining not to watch her watch it throughout, not to hang on her every reaction. Afterwards she, too, found the movie just okay. It wasn't her kind of thing, but she could understand why I liked it so much. Those were pretty close to her exact words. Maybe with her characteristic Queens hard-boiled tone: I see why you like it, kiddo. Then, in a turn I find difficult to relate, she left me there to watch it a second time, and took the subway home alone. What a heartbreaking rehearsal! I was saying, in effect: come and see my future, postmom self. Enact with me your parting from it. Here's the world of cinema and stories and obsessive identification I'm using to survive your going — now go. How generous of her to play in this masquerade, if she knew.
16. I spent a certain amount of time that year trying hopelessly to distract my grandmother from the coming loss of her only child — it would mostly wreck her — by pushing my new enthusiasms at her. For instance she and I had a recurrent argument about rock and roll, one which it now strikes me was probably a faint echo, for her, of struggles over my mother's dropping out of Queens College in favor of a Greenwich Village beatnik-folk lifestyle. I worked to find a hit record she couldn't quibble with, and thought I'd found one in Wings' "Mull of Kintyre," which is really just a strummy Irish folk song. I played it for her at top volume and she grimaced, her displeasure not at the music but at the apparent trump card I'd played. Then, on the fade, Paul McCartney gave out a kind of whoop-whoop holler and my grandmother seized on this, with relish: "You hear that? He had to go and scream. It wasn't good enough just to sing, he had to scream like an animal!" Her will was too much for me. So it was that when she resisted being dragged to Star Wars I probably didn't mind, being uninterested in having her trample on my secret sand castle. She and I were ultimately in a kind of argument about whether or not our family was a site of tragedy, and I probably sensed I was on the losing end of that one.
17. My father lived in a commune for part of that summer, though my mother's illness sometimes drew him back into the house. There was a man in the commune — call him George Lucas — whose married life, which included two young children, was coming apart. George Lucas was the person I knew who'd seen Star Wars the most times, apart from me, and we had a ritualized bond over it. He'd ask me how many times I'd seen the film and I'd report, like an emissary with good news from the front. George Lucas had a copy of the soundtrack and we'd sit in the commune's living room and play it on the stereo, which I seem to remember being somewhat unpopular with the commune's larger membership. George Lucas, who played piano and had some classical training, would always proclaim that the score was really pretty good symphonic composition — he'd also play me Gustav Holst's The Planets as a kind of primer, and to show me how the Death Star theme came from Holst's "Jupiter"— and I would dutifully parrot this for my friends, with great severity: John Williams's score was really pretty good symphonic composition.
18. The movie itself, right: of course, I must have enjoyed it immensely the first few times. That's what I least recall. Instead I recall now how, as I memorized scenes, I fought my impatience and yet fought not to know I was fighting impatience — all that mattered were the winnowed satisfactions of crucial moments occurring once again, like stations of the cross: "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope," "These aren't the droids you're looking for," "If you strike me down, I'll become more powerful than you can possibly imagine," and the dunk shot of Luke's missiles entering the Death Star's duct. I hated, absolutely, the sewage scene. I hated not knowing who Biggs was. I hated Han Solo and Princess Leia's flirtation, after a while, feeling I was being manipulated, that it was too mannered and rote: of course they're grumbling now, that's how it always goes. I hated the triumphalist ceremony at the end, though the spiffing-up of the robots was a consolation, a necessary relief. I think I came to hate a lot of the film, but I couldn't permit myself to know it. I even came, within a year or so, to hate the fact that I'd seen the movie twenty-one times.
19. Why that number? Probably I thought it was safely ridiculous and extreme to get my record into the twenties, yet stopping at only twenty seemed too mechanically round. Adding one more felt plausibly arbitrary, more realistic. That was likely all I could stand. Perhaps at twenty-one I'd also attained the symbolic number of adulthood, of maturity. By bringing together thirteen and twenty-one I'd made Star Wars my bar mitzvah, a ritual I didn't have and probably could have used that year. Now I was a man.
20. By the time I was fifteen not only had I long since quit boasting about my love of Star Wars, but it had become privately crucial to have another favorite movie inscribed in its place. I decided Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was a suitably noble and alienated choice, but that in order to make it official I'd have to see it more times than Star Wars. An exhausting proposition, but I went right at it. One day at the Thalia on West Ninety-fifth Street I sat alone through 2001 three times in a row in a nearly empty theater, a commitment of some nine hours. That day I brought along a tape recorder in order to whisper notes on this immersion experience to my friend Eliot — I also taped Also sprach Zarathustra all six times. If Star Wars was my bar mitzvah then 2001 was getting laid, an experience requiring a more persuasive maturity, and one which I more honestly enjoyed, especially fifteen or twenty showings in. Oddly enough, though, I never did completely overwrite Star Wars with 2001. Instead I stuck at precisely twenty-one viewings of the second movie as well, leaving the two in a dead heat. Even that number was only attained years later, at the University theater in Berkeley, California, two days after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. There was a mild aftershock which rumbled the old theater during the Star Gate sequence, a nice touch. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Galaxy Not So Far Away by Glenn Kenny Henry. Copyright © 2002 Glenn Kenny. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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