“‘Star Wars’ may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.” — Pauline Kael
Like anybody whose youth went unremarkably, I spent time in my third grade music classes learning to play the recorder. Certainly you remember it: the squeaky whistle-cum-flute your parents were required to purchase for you, praying never to have to hear you play it in the house. Horrendous as it sounded, it was nonetheless quite easy to play; a chance for every child to glean the most basic tenets of reading music and playing music. Those who caught on moved on the the bigger dreams—flutes, trumpets, saxophones—whereas others put the recorder in their junk drawer and just listened to CD’s. I remember almost nothing of these lessons (notwithstanding “Hot Cross Buns” being seared onto my soul like a branding iron), save turning one day to the second-to-last song in our music book. The title of the composition simply read as “Star Wars.” My classmate asked our teacher what Star Wars was. I was glad she did; I was curious as well. Teacher’s simple reply: “You’ve not seen Star Wars? It’s good!”
I didn’t know Star Wars at the time. But in the vein of some Baader-Meinhof moment, I kept hearing about it. Eventually I’d notice VHS copies of the movies at friends’ homes. The following summer my parents finally borrowed the three videocassettes sporting that name. After sitting there a few weeks I went down to the family den, alone, and I watched Star Wars.
And I never stopped watching.
I learned every character name, memorized every line of dialog. I internalized each musical cue, identified every main theme. By the time Christmas rolled around, Star Wars was everywhere in my home. New toys littered the family den. Posters and hand-drawn artwork hung in my bedroom. I was gifted my own VHS copies of the movies, complete with “THX remastering” (not that I actually knew what that meant). The next Easter my basket contained copies of the Star Wars soundtracks. The last time I ever donned a Halloween costume for trick-or-treating, I went as Luke Skywalker. Most parents probably yell at their kids for not doing their chores and watching too much television. My dad yelled at me for not doing my chores and watching too much Star Wars.
In 1977 the movie tapped into a mass desire virtually no other movie had struck before. Kids from that era reminisce about their rewatches entering the double-digits. Were I born twenty, even fifteen years earlier, no doubt I’d have been one of them. Star Wars was my childhood. And then it returned, only a few years later. And it became my adolescence. Now, it is my adulthood. The way things look, it’s likely as well to be my elderhood, my eulogy, and my ghosthood. The sentiment that these movies are “more than mere movies” is a cheap and maudlin one. But for me, it’s also kind of true.
This is my own unique experience with these movies, though I concede my experience is hardly unique. It’s the story of my past yet it is—sadly, you might think—the story of my present. I entered the world after Star Wars began, and Star Wars could well not end before I leave it. You could, I presume, fill up a large nation in the European Union with a population of people sharing my precise experience. I doubt I’m even the only person to have found these movies indirectly, through a childhood recorder rehearsal. The older I get the better I appreciate the queasy truth that these movies, for whom my passion is singular, are more omnipresent that most other popular culture on the planet. While Star Wars is special for me, my love for them is in no way special. Yet for all my ambivalences, my affection fails to waver. I still love these movies, excite to them, feel moved by them. Lines I’ve heard (perhaps literally) over a hundred times still make me chuckle. I could hum Shmi Skywalker’s musical leitmotif right now, from memory, if you asked. There’s an embarrassingly marginal chance my dying thoughts will be not of my family or of my achievements, but of Star Wars. (You say “Rosebud,” I say “Rogue Leader.”) I can live with that.
I consider all the words I’ve vomited out over the last few days, ostensibly under my mission statement to put words to my feelings about this series of absurdly popular movies. I’ve tried my best to cover them from disparate angles—as filmmaking and storytelling, as postmodern mythology, as fandom apparatuses—in hopes I could find in them some more reasonable, more writerly truth. I don’t quite know how much closer I’ve come to an answer, unless my ambivalence becoming more pronounced qualifies. Otherwise, I don’t know what drives my passion for these movies—which don’t necessarily contain the best stories, the most elegant filmmaking, or the niche-iest fandom—beyond the fact that they were popular, they got into my head first, and they stuck.
Nostalgia is the easiest sentiment to blame for something sticking with you well beyond youth. And nostalgia’s inarguably become so lucrative a cultural force that nobody questioned the $4 billion price tag attached to Lucasfilm and its creative assets. (“I was a kid again” seemed to be the most common, and revealing, reaction to The Force Awakens.) For me, at least, I’m not sure that’s the whole story. The thing about nostalgia is that it should relate to some relatively well-contained phenomenon of the past. Revisiting that text taps into something primal about your earlier self. But in its relation to the present, nostalgia ought to connote some kind of intellectual disconnect with the past. Obviously nostalgia plays a significant role, given that the first movie released forty years ago. It would be easier to so chalk this up had I indeed been born fifteen, twenty years earlier. But I’d only watched Star Wars a few years before the prequels hit theaters. As they were “ruining” the childhoods of fans older than me, my own childhood (specifically adolescence) seemed, still, to be happening. Even the seven empty years between the last prequel and the announcement of the Disney sale didn’t seem so empty. Popular cartoon spinoffs ran on television, books continued to publish, and games continued to be played. How much can nostalgia truly set in on a product of your youth when that product doesn’t get to go away?
If its omnipresence stops me from simply rationalizing Star Wars as some artifact of youth, it seems only logical to consider its emotional grip as some kind of consistent force. My obsession with the movies as a kid might have been absurd at the time, but it’s not as if my view of the world didn’t expand significantly as I grew older. In the years between the original trilogy and the prequels, My family moved for the first time, away from my only friends. Between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones my whole universe changed. I discovered cinema beyond the multiplex (thank you, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger!), commencing in earnest my miserable obsession with film. September 11 happened, commencing my journey as a citizen of the world. I had my first date—with a girl—commencing a deluge of uncomfortable questions about what precisely I desired (it wasn’t girls). Revenge of the Sith released after my college freshman year, immediately after I had come out of the closet and found a community of friends I’d never known I needed. In the time between that and the Disney era, careers happened. Activism happened. Sex happened. Marriage happened. Culture happened. Grad school happened. When I first sat down for The Force Awakens, with my new friends and old family, I sat next to my husband, feeling relief mere hours after having turned in an essay I’d been drafting all semester. I will be watching The Last Jedi tonight, this time with a new degree; my husband still in-tow, though thanks to another move we now live a half-country away from those friends and family who joined me the last time.
It’s less a circumstance of serendipity than omnipresence; I do recognize that. But the degree to which I can frame these events via Star Wars has nonetheless proven helpful. More than nostalgia devices, the constant presence of these movies makes them feel like timestamps of their eras. Those timestamps could be personal, as I just expounded. Though perhaps they’re also political (Lucas’ intended allusions to post-Vietnam paranoia have been documented, and his prequels’ Bush-era evocations are all too evident). They could also be cultural (In a closer time, in a nearer galaxy, Kylo Ren would be 4channing about ethics in gaming journalism, and a woman leading a diverse group of ragtag freedom fighters against a crypto-fascist regime feels… relevant). The movies are signifiers of their times passed, yes. But in their (staggered) perpetuity, perhaps they are also signifiers of time progressed. Just as my world evolves, as my understanding of it evolves, these movies evolve as well, if in their own modest ways.
Yet it’s consistency is what I glean from Star Wars. Intriguing is how the series followed more or less the same formula across its four full decades of existence. It’s a formula their creator happened to pilfer from a popular scholar of mythologies, who himself didn’t so much “invent” a formula as provide a framework for the way we all of us tell stories. Everything about these stories of heroes and their journeys, it’s been argued by scholars and artists far smarter than I, tap into a universal experience; a desire to see oneself, to see a great story of going there and back again, and to feel inspiration in those stories that propel the self into grander, bittersweet realities. The saga of Luke Skywalker, though specific, is omnipresent. Which by definition means Luke is not unique.
I’m not unique either. My upbringing, my burgeoning interests, my clumsy journey to adulthood, even my coming out and my third-grade recorder rehearsals, all teem with mediocrity and omnipresence shared by the millions of other erstwhile children sure to cram in for a screening this weekend of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. There’s an irony, then, considering how earnestly these stories tap our earnest investments in exceptional heroes. Yet as the reality of my own mediocrity (perhaps “normalcy” is a kinder word) grows more acceptable, I find myself clinging more to the universalism of these stories than the exceptionalism. Star Wars offers, like so much other art in the galaxy, a chance for the spectator to resonate with the exceptional or the universal—depending on what you need in the moment, and depending on what has happened in the interstitial space between episodes. If anything makes this unexceptional series exceptional, beyond its ability to tap into its audiences desires so effectively (and so profitably), it’s probably the ability to keep making stories that function for the times, while still keeping what are fundamentally the same characters and creatures, the same worlds, the same internal mythology. That may comfort you, or it may disconcert you. You might agree, or you might disagree. Either way, these stories remain.
Despite what I said earlier, it could well be that before I tire of my body, I will tire first of Star Wars. Perhaps the storytelling will alienate me, or I’ll grow exasperated with its parent company, which seems well on the way to enslaving the human race to use our brains for battery juice (though that’s a different movie, from a different studio, for a different future acquisition). I’ll let you know when that happens, if that happens. For now, though, I have a job to get to, and a dinner to prepare.
Then I have a movie to see.
This is the last of a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:
- It’s the Sound that Defines Star Wars (1977)
- Darth Vader is a Terrible Boss in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Downside of Safe Choices
- How The Phantom Menace (1999) Compensates for a Lack of Mystery
- In Attack of the Clones (2002), John Williams is Smoother than Sand
- On Revenge of the Sith (2005), and George Lucas as Auteur
- With The Force Awakens (2015), Star Wars
Becomes its Own Mythology
- Rogue One (2016) Takes the Fun Out of Nitpicking Star Wars
- Final Thoughts — TODAY’S ESSAY