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Waiting for the Jedi

The shaggy saga of a ‘Star Wars’ late arriver
/ Source: contributor

I remember the day the first “Star Wars” movie premiered. But it wasn’t because I was standing in line to see it. At that moment in time, I was frantically trying to complete my fourth year of college, studying for final exams in required courses I had put off until my last semester.

And for one class I was struggling with a “computer simulation” of running a small business for 10 fiscal years. For those of you too young to remember the state of computers in 1977, while R2-D2 was directly accessing the systems of the Death Star on screen, I was operating a keypunch machine putting holes in cards to be fed into one end of a series of big boxes in a refrigerated room in the basement of the Administration Building and then waiting next to a printer the size of a Toyota for green-striped pages declaring me either a business success or bankrupt. And I was competing for access to the computer with more computer science majors than “Episode IV” had Stormtroopers, although I did notice that as soon as “Star Wars” hit the theaters, their numbers noticeably shrank.

Meanwhile, I was working part-time at a Los Angeles radio station as a Second-String Sidekick, where a strange turn of telephone-based events had almost earned me a Guinness World Record for the Longest Wait on Hold. After that adventure in endless waiting, I was understandably hesitant to stand in long lines for a mere movie, but it only took about three weeks for my radio personality boss to christen me The Only Human Being Who Hasn't Seen “Star Wars.”

So, it wasn't until I left town to run an automated radio station in Central California that I finally saw The Big One. It was playing at the oldest theater in the county, a movie palace that seemed all out of proportion to its semi-rural location. From the ticket booth that looked like a giant jukebox that had eaten a teenager to the dark red velvet draped interior with a secular Sistine Chapel of a painted ceiling, it was an appropriate environment for a movie set “Long ago, in a galaxy far far away.”

Hey, 1977, lighten up!
At that moment in pop culture, the only Sci-Fi seemed to be the “Star Trek” reruns airing weeknights on one of the higher-numbered TV stations. Any by their sixth repeat, harder-core Trekkies than I were beginning to get bored. Meanwhile, a dark, downbeat atmosphere seemed to dominate the movies as “Airport ’77” submerged a 747 and “The Exorcist II” sank Richard Burton. “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s idea of romantic comedy, ended with the classic “dead shark” speech. “A Bridge Too Far” was a big-budget star-studded World War II epic about an Allied campaign that failed (apparently, the bridge was too far). And anybody hoping for magic in a movie titled “Sorcerer” instead encountered a remake of a French film about desperate men transporting unstable explosives (which, considering how much it cost, should have had a lot more explosions).

Even “Smokey and the Bandit” was a downer: as a long-time Jackie Gleason fan, I was rooting for Smokey.

Into that atmosphere, “Star Wars” was more than a breath of fresh air: it was a cure for emphysema. With a matter-of-factness toward the science of its Science Fiction (Lightsabers were ancient weapons?), it moved its audience through a universe that perfectly blended the amazing and the familiar. The spacecraft moved like you thought spacecraft should. The Jedi religion was an accessible mix of deism and mysticism.

Alien creatures speaking foreign languages easily conversed with humanoids speaking English, and the twin suns setting on Tatooine were beautiful, not weird. And the movie’s true central character was a three-foot machine whose dialogue was all clicks and whistles: R2-D2 was there from the beginning, coaxing C-3PO into the escape pod, to the final assault on the Death Star as Luke's electronic co-pilot.

For the closing scene, in which Han, Luke and Chewbacca were given medals by Princess Leia, and they were all applauded by an assemblage of rebel fighters, George Lucas was unabashedly staging an on-screen curtain call and in the atmosphere of that big, old-school theater, even less than a quarter-full, it seemed like an overwhelming ovation. “Star Wars” was made for a theater like that.

Help me Obi-Wan
After that first installment, the incongruously subtitled “Episode IV,” movies in general seemed to become more optimistic. When Richard Dreyfuss entered the mothership in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” I wished I could've gone with him — at other times in my life, I would’ve yelled at the screen “Don't go in there!! You're gonna get probed!!!”

But then, with “The Empire Strikes Back,” George Lucas played the dirtiest trick in the history of Hollywood, leaving us at the end of that two hours with nothing but calamity and cliffhangers. Every one of our heroes were in defeat, in peril, in captivity or in Carbonite. And we the audience were left waiting — in line, on hold, in Carbonite — three whole years for “Return of the Jedi” and the final happy ending.

Which brings us to the current day. Personally, I haven't set foot in a radio station in a decade, never wait on hold longer than two minutes and can't remember the last time I saw a computer punch card. And I haven't heard a louder ovation for a movie than the one for “Star Wars” back in ’77.

Yet there seems to be more of a proliferation of Happy Endings in the movies than at any time since the Great Depression (irony acknowledged).

If you want dark and downbeat, watch TV shows like “The Sopranos,” “Lost” or “The Shield.” Into this atmosphere, here comes “The Revenge of the Sith,” the movie everyone knows the ending to, and it ain’t gonna be pretty. As a piece of shared culture, it feels almost mandatory for someone of my generation. Yet, the experience inevitably will be melancholy at best, disappointing at worst. And the black box rooms in the 21st-century google-plexes just aren't as conducive to curtain calls as the old ornate auditoriums.

After 28 years, there’s no reason to wait any longer. But I’m definitely going to have the DVD set of the original “Star Wars” trilogy at home.

I don’t want to wait on hold for the happy ending.

is the alias of an online writer in Southern California.