Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing

It’s been almost 35 years since Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope took American pop culture by storm in late May of 1977, and when it comes to nerdy Star Wars fan boys, I was right in there with the best of them. I’ve calculated that I saw the original film somewhere around 45 times. And I’m not talking about home video, either. I’m talking about buying a ticket and standing in line to see a movie in the days of one-theater, one-screen per city -- so if a movie was popular you had to get there early.

I wasn’t just a hard core fan, I was an early adopter. A reluctant early adopter, at first. A couple of weeks before Star Wars was released nationwide it had a premier run at the Coronet theater in San Francisco. This was supposedly George Lucas’ preferred venue, what with its huge 70 millimeter print friendly screen, massively amped sound system, and comfy high backed rocking seats up in the loge. I was visiting some friends in the city, and they asked if I’d heard of Star Wars. “You mean that Starsky and Hutch in rocket ships thing?” I replied. I’d seen the trailer, and wasn’t impressed. To my mind, space movies had to be slow moving, dull, and full of ponderous fake Zen elitism. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey or Silent Running. The Star Wars trailer just made me think that some yahoo in Hollywood had gotten the idea of putting car chases in space, and I wanted no part of it.

“Yeah, well…we’re going anyway. Again. Tonight. We’ll just see what you think later,” my hosts said. The “again” part should have tipped me off right there.

The mob scene awaiting us at 3575 Geary Street told me once and for all that something was definitely going on here. Star Wars at the Coronet in May of 1977 was THE hot ticket in San Francisco. It wasn’t a movie, it was an event, a large gathering that took over the sidewalk circling an entire city block and packed it shoulder to shoulder with cheerful people brimming with community and giddy anticipation. You had to wait in two lines, one to buy your ticket and one to get into the theater, and each line took several hours. Some people had support teams who would bring them coolers, tents, lawn chairs, air mattresses, portable TV’s and mini-bars, then pack it up and take it all away once the line started moving. Backgammon and chess games prevailed, and there were frequent outbreaks of improv-theater, dance, and drum circles.

Once inside, I couldn’t believe the atmosphere, the vibe of the place. It was exactly the slow-glowing rush you feel when you’re in the audience at a greatly anticipated rock concert, before the headliner, when everyone is settled and in a good mood. So, actually I could believe the atmosphere, I had just never experienced it in a movie theater before.

Then the movie started, along with something else I had never experienced before in a movie theater – non-stop robust enthusiastic audience participation. I mean people were up on their feet and cheering the 20th Century Fox logo, for crying out loud. Every time a Stormtrooper appeared on the screen, the boos and hisses were deafening enough, but when Darth Vader made his entrance I thought a fire had broken out in the theater, there was so much noise. There were entire blocks of dialogue that I never heard until many viewings later, because the audience at the Coronet was so loud I couldn’t hear anything coming from the sound system. And it was a LOUD sound system. Every rebel advance got cheers and applause, every alliance move got boos that you could feel in your spine, and even the slightest hint of a George Lucas ham-fisted attempt at comic relief got roars of laughter like we were watching Martin and Lewis in their prime. When it was over, the movie got a 5 minute standing ovation. I didn’t even know that was allowed in a movie house. The next night we went again, and again the night after that. It was the thing to do and the place to be in San Francisco at that time.

Star Wars got a fairly slow national release, actually, but once the word of mouth got going, it quickly became the big blockbuster of that summer, obviously. Once I got back home and Star Wars had arrived in Oregon, I was primed and ready to start converting the masses. I felt an evangelical need to drag as many people as I could into the Westgate Cinema in Beaverton for this semi-religious experience. Imagine my horror when everyone in the audience just sat there like they were watching a movie or something. No one cheered, no one booed, no one applauded and no one laughed. I wanted to jump up on my seat and shout “What the hell is WRONG with you people? Aren’t you SEEING this?” No standing ovation at the end, either. Oh, well.

The Star Wars franchise went on to become the cultural phenomenon we all know and love and occasionally ridicule. All of the movies, and George Lucas, and Lucasfilms, and Skywalker Ranch, ultimately got every bit of attention and every dollar they so richly deserved.

But I think its San Francisco premier was Star Wars’ finest hour.

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