Sunday, May 4, 2014

Happy Star Wars Day!

Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) has always been part of my cultural landscape, coming out in the theaters when I was 6.  I actually remember the weekend it came out, not because I went to see it (my parents wouldn't let me, disliking "Wars" in the title) but because the following Monday everyone at school was asking each other, "Do you think Darth Vader lives?" and me not having a clue what people were talking about.

But I did eventually see it on re-release, and then repeatedly on video, at student union screenings of the trilogy and the eventual Special Edition after I'd graduated from college, astounded at the lines circling the block waiting to pile into the Coronet in San Francisco, supposedly George's favorite cinema to see the films with the public (and now, like most single-screeners in the Bay Area, long closed).

It was an easy film to take for granted, primarily because it was so ubiquitous, and because The Empire Strikes Back was such a smarter, darker, more provocative, more mature film and easily the best in the series.  A New Hope (as it would eventually be called) was a fine movie that changed the industry forever (for better and for worse), but I found myself easily relegating it to afterthought status, even after getting hired by Lucasfilm and diving deep into the history of that production.  But something happened during my time at Skywalker Ranch that changed all that.

In anticipation of the release of Episode III, I was called upon to do a Quality Control assignment (one of my disciplines there). It turns out, George's best friend (with an alliterative name) was being given his own personal print of Ep3 to see. However, it was decided that he should also have a copy of Ep4 so that they could be run consecutively, back-to-back (for the purpose of highlighting all the continuity embedded therein). But since this was going to be at this famous filmmaker's personal deluxe home cinema, we were to send him the best print possible.

Now while I had been exposed to Ep4 many times while working there, it was always in bits and pieces, on DVD or my computer work station, or on a flatbed watching dailies, but always with a "job" in mind, deconstructing visuals or analyzing audio for a variety of reasons. But I didn't even remember the last time I'd seen the film on a big screen, though it was probably around '97 (almost a decade earlier) when the SE first came out.

And one cardinal rule I had discovered while working there is that the really really great films never got old (I count Empire and Raiders as the only two from the studio that fit that criteria), the bad films stayed bad, and those I thought in the pretty good range, you still hit an exhaustion threshold over time. I always considered the first Star Wars one of those.

So here I was, with a pristine 35mm print of New Hope, one that was struck off one of the master negatives, told to QC it start-to-finish to make sure it looked good (no one even knew the last time it had been examined). Yes, this was the Special Edition version, but it was still me all alone in the theater at ILM, about to watch a stunning print of this film.

I thought I'd be jaded, or a little bored with the familiarity of it, or too wrapped up in my assignment to actually have fun. But I was wrong. I was transfixed, and while I have issues with the film, everything that made it so remarkable, so amazing and creative and ambitious an accomplishment, all popped out again, so vividly and lovingly, as if to remind me of all the things I had indeed taken for granted. The eyes of a nine-year-old and a 37-year-old converged as I dove deep into George's universe of imagination.

Personally, I love being alone in a big theater watching a movie. There's something very special about the experience, as if it's being held just for me. Well this one was, with as good a print and as exemplary a theater as existed anywhere--and it was far far better than I could've imagined. I left beaming. I'll never forget it.

The Scott # for the Star Wars stamps pictured are all #4143, with the following letters denoting the Millennium Falcon (b), Leia & R2 (f), C-3PO (g), Obi-Wan Kenobi (i) and Darth Maul (k).  The Yoda stamp was a separate issue later that year, #4205. 

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