' ' Cinema Romantico: Letting Go

Monday, May 20, 2024

Letting Go

Like many people born in the summer of “Star Wars” in 1977, and who grew up playing “Star Wars” with friends, and buying the action figures and the bubble bath, and staying up late to watch “The Empire Strikes Back” as the NBC Sunday Night Movie of the Week, as a fledgling adult in the summer of 1999 I was in a tizzy to see the long-awaited prequel “The Phantom Menace.” And because I was assistant managing a multiplex at the time, I first watched Episode I a couple days before its official May 19th, 1999, release, at midnight with just a few other managers. No regular employees were allowed; it was restricted access only. I literally had to step over people camped along the sidewalk for the first showing to get inside and was verboten from letting it slip why I was there. At some point during the movie, after what I think might have been the line about how you can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting, I exchanged a look with another manager, the same sort of look we might have exchanged during, like, “The Mod Squad” a couple weeks earlier. Digital effects aside, that’s basically what “The Phantom Menace” was, as good as “The Mod Squad.” After it ended, that same manager and I stepped back over the people in line and went to his car. He paused before opening his door, cast his eyes toward the devotees settling in for a night of sleeping on the cement, and said, with a genuine touch of melancholy, “Those poor bastards don’t even know.”

For its 25th anniversary I am not interested in making an aesthetic appraisal of “The Phantom Menace”; for the purposes of this post, consider my negative opinion of it strictly as a work of art written in stone. What always bothered me, though, both at the time of its release and in the years since as it has been reclaimed in some quarters as supposedly better than its reputation, were the assumptions that people who did not like it had an agenda, or held a grudge, or suffered from unfairly outsized expectations. Indeed, to observe the 25th anniversary of “The Phantom Menace,” the Roger Ebert site recently reposted its namesake’s original review and I was horrified to rediscover the first paragraph is an in-advance scolding of all the naysayers like me, that if we didn’t appreciate it for what it was then we couldn’t even appreciate the stars in the sky, or something. Reading that review, man, made me want to take up figurative arms like Gene Siskel on the other side of the aisle. “‘The Phantom Menace’ isn’t Orion, Roger, it’s the lights in the parking lot at Ruby Tuesday.”

There is considerable history and subsequent baggage that comes with being a “Star Wars” fan, true, and it’s easy to believe a great many fans of the franchise were and are not being honest with themselves, but Ebert’s positive notice was rife with equivocations and so maybe he wasn’t being entirely honest with himself. The ancient fallacy of assuming me incapable of setting aside my expectations and assessing the movie on its own terms ticked me off then and it ticks me off now. But letting that hate flow through me, to quote the late great Emperor Palpatine, is what tends to go hand-in-hand, anymore, with being a “Star Wars” fan: everything is taken personally, resulting in the kind of fan toxicity that has become a modern pop culture scourge, and which led me to detach from “Star Wars” as much as the mediocre prequels and subsequent sequels themselves.

I want to be real clear here and say that George Lucas did not destroy my childhood. Leaving aside the should-be self-evident observation that a movie having any real effect on my upbringing is ridiculous, those memories I have of playing “Star Wars” with friends, of buying the action figures and the bubble bath, of staying up late to watch “The Empire Strikes Back” as the NBC Sunday Night Movie of the Week all still happened despite whatever happened later. Besides, there is the movie itself, the first one, which has always meant the most to me, and which, in revisiting the first 30 minutes or so of recently, I was not surprised to find for the umpteenth time still slaps, to use the parlance of our times, imagery and editing and music linked in that way that continues to awe me independent of everything else. And as I get older, and my memory banks begin to deteriorate, “Star Wars” itself will exist as the last document of what it all meant. 

That half-hour of “Star Wars” I watched was the Project 4K77 version, the one in which a group of guerilla fans remastered the original 1977 cut, ridding it of Lucas’s myriad digital and narrative add-ons over the years, seeking to restore the real thing everyone like me grew up on and fell in love with to 4K visual fidelity. This post isn’t about the aesthetics of “The Phantom Menace” and it isn’t about the ethical or moral implications of this remastering, though it’s notable how Lucas seeking not just to alter the original cut but to actively suppress it would appear to go against his own words regarding film preservation, if you consider, as he would seem to, film preservation to be not just about protecting the film negatives of old movies but their original presentations, treating such a cut, as The New York Times’ Jody Rosen wrote of the masters lost in the 2008 Universal Music fire, as “the thing itself.” And if the thing itself is what endures as the last real memory for those of us who grew up with “Star Wars” only to see that memory essentially erased before our very eyes, I sympathize with the fans who don’t want to lose it even if I find something equally interesting and revealing in Lucas treating his masterpiece like a palimpsest.

Almost 50 years after it was filmed, the abandoned remnants of some original “Star Wars” sets remain scattered across Tunisia, standing in for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, like the little igloo in deep in the Sahara representing the character’s family home. Given the remote location and harsh climate, it’s hard to believe that it’s lasted this long, helped along by some “Star Wars” fans who specifically sought to preserve it, though you can bet that eventually the desert will reclaim it. It is reminiscent of the original trilogy itself, with Lucas as a kind of manmade Mother Nature, eroding his own creations, and reminds me of my own relationship with the seminal space opera, once alive and immediate but having gradually worn away over time. At one point in my life, movies and “Star Wars” were synonymous, but even by the summer of 1999, it had already ceased to matter to me as much as the movies themselves. And so, when “Star Wars” stopped being good, I didn’t really have a reason to need it anymore.

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