IT'S 1977. DAN Veesenmeyer, age 10, waits with some buddies in a dark theater for a movie called Wizards to begin. A preview comes on for a new feature called Star Wars. The preview is so riveting the guys walk out on Wizards after 10 minutes.
Twenty years later Vessenmeyer says, "Those first seconds when the Star Destroyer flew over, we knew we were in for something huge."
Last Friday morning, Dan and a few hundred friends waited in a Har-Mar screening room to see an advance showing of the reissued Star Wars. Hot Comics, which Dan now co-owns with Brian Messick, bought 200 tickets for resale. Nine bucks got you a seat, T-shirt, poster, and pack of trading cards.
At just after 10:30, the theater goes dark and still. Then the music comes up and that plain line of type begins to cross the screen: "A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR AWAY..."
In the 10th row Jess Heitland says, "I waited my whole life for this."
Stand-up comic Patton Oswalt says: "Kids starting college this fall are the first freshman class born after Star Wars came out. That movie was the JFK assassination for my generation. When the Death Star blew up, that was like bullets hitting JFK's head right there. I walked into that movie a kid and came out a man."
Oswalt doesn't need a group home. He's pure stand-there-out-on-the-sidewalk American, paying homage to one of the touchstones of the super-sized pop culture hatched in the 1970s and refined in the two decades since.
Friday's crowd, mostly male and around 30, is back after 20 years to revisit that magic time before puberty struck like an Imperial Star Cruiser. Some have brought their own sons. Unlike Star Trek events, nobody's in costume. One guy sniffs at the thought of comparing the two audiences: "Trekkies think it's real. We know it's entertainment. The Trekkie thing is like taking on a new life, or any life at all, to fill in the hours between squeezing zits and jerking off."
There aren't many women or girls here; there are at most in the entire movie one, that being the nearly vacant shell of Princess Leia whose only dilemma, unplumbed and unresolved, is whether to go for the wholesome Luke or the smartass Han Solo.
As the story unwinds, the devotees around me point out updates and changes. Jabba the Hutt shares a cameo with Harrison Ford. Newly inserted frames have the bounty hunter Greedo firing first before Solo shoots him. Midway through the film I get a flash that will forever alter the film for me: I suddenly see Bill Clinton in Chewbacca. There is the same big, awkward frame; more hair, of course, but brushed back stiffly in that same familiar way. I realize that we have a defoliated Wookie in the White House.
When Solo puts the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace, I travel back to the day in 1977 when I pulled my kid out of Webster Magnet School to see this film. To the collection of action figures and the sticker-covered woodwork that followed. To us hauling my brother, a teacher of 17th Century literature, to the movie and contributing surely to his year-long jag in video parlors blasting away at incoming alien ships, earning splitting headaches for saving us all.
One of the highlights in the pop legend of George Lucas is his pop-visionary decision to forego a fast buck on the film and retain the sole licensing rights. All those nickels from all that stuff that now fills a big catalog. The first huge harvest of movie tie-in merchandise outside Disney, and the forerunner of tons of stuff routinely dumped on the market with every sappy kid flick.
Years ago I replaced a big section of sod in my yard; at night the raccoons rolled it up neatly to pick grubs from the exposed soil. One morning I came out to reroll the sod and there lay a row of Star Wars bounty hunters in the exposed dirt. To this day I don't know whether a kid put them there to do battle with the raccoons or the animals themselves collected and slew them all. Nobody has ever said.
Last week I was at the counter at Hot Comics in a corner of the Southtown Mall discussing with Dan Veesenmeyer the story about a Star Wars figure that originally sold for $4 recently going for $1400. A thirty-something browsing a nearby display case looked up and said, "A Jawa with the vinyl cape." It's what hip, white Americans say these days.
There are lots of interpretations of the Star Wars fable, from arcane mythology to international power politics. But none of the dozen or so customers who came into the store last Friday had the slightest interest in discussing what it all meant. Every last one did have a favorite character though, and in every case it was the same one he'd picked out for himself two decades prior.
"Luke," said Veesenmeyer. "He's got the powers of The Force."
Brian Messick thought a minute. Not like he didn't know but like maybe it wasn't any of my business. Then he said, "Solo. Captain of his own ship. Flies by the seat of his pants. Makes his own rules."