Because “Star Wars” is so often lauded (and, in turn, chided) for its groundbreaking special effects, and because we so often first see “Star Wars” at an age when we are most susceptible to the spectacle of spectacular special, it only makes sense that the film’s Wowza! Shots would be most burned into our memories. That was certainly true for me. The Star Destroyer in the indomitable franchise’s very first shot swallowing up the rebels’ little pile of junk; the X-Wings swooping down into the Death Star’s terrifying trench; that moment in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Han desperately dives the Falcon between the converging Star Destroyers, which took away my breath on the little TV in our family room as much as it did when I finally saw it on the big screen some fourteen years later. And yet, there is another shot that has stayed with me even longer despite its formal plain-spokenness, and that required years between it and myself to engender the proper perspective to truly appreciate it. The shot has nothing to do with space or spaceships or planets blown to smithereens; nope, it’s just a human face.
I call him The Old Guy In “Star Wars.” He has an entry on the infamous Wookiepedia because “Star Wars” obsessives don’t like to let the mystery be, but for the purposes of this post we will act as if that in-depth backstory does not exist because it certainly did not exist the first time I watched “Star Wars”, and the first thousand million times after. You remember The Old Guy. The Star Destroyer tractor beams the rebels’ little pile of junk and the rebels’ hapless foot soldiers assume defensive positions for when the Imperial storm troopers enter to wreak havoc. And the camera settled, and then lingered, twice, on The Old Guy. There were any number of rebels the camera could have picked out, but it chose him. It – that is, the camera – was advising that I should pay attention to him, and so I did, thinking he must therefore be of extreme importance, that perhaps he was the leader of this little band with the little ray guns. Then, the Storm Troopers barreled through the door, firing off lasers with surprising accuracy given their woeful marksmanship to come, and the camera re-found The Old Guy, blasting his ray gun back at the invaders, and…down he went. It was shocking. It’s still shocking.
It’s as basic a lesson as you’ll learn but which every kid needs to learn about the movies anyway – that is, the camera is the author of the story, and wherever its gaze goes, you go too. It reels you in, and while it can convey truth, it can also deceive. By putting the camera where he did, up close and personal, however briefly, on The Old Guy, Lucas roped me in before completely undercutting me a few staggering seconds later.
I’ve never recovered.