Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Journey, complete

(This post may contain geek-like substance.)

So today, shortly after 3:00 p.m., I finished up what I was doing at The Store, punched out on The Timeclock, grabbed my stuff, and headed for the door -- but first stopping in our Video Department to pick up the new DVD of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. At the moment of purchase, it felt pretty much like every other time I've picked up a new DVD or CD on the day of release: just a sense of "Cool, I got mine." And then I was on my way home.

It didn't really occur to me until a bit later that I now own the complete Star Wars saga on DVD. The whole thing, parts One through Six.

Yeah, I know -- you read all this before, back when the damn movie came out in theaters in May, about how "the circle is complete" and how now we know how the whole story works out and yada yada yada. But that's not what I was really thinking about, today -- it was about my relationship with Star Wars, how it began, how it shifted to a private relationship based on home video, how it continues now that the circle is complete and now that we know how the whole story works out.

I first saw Star Wars in 1977, when I was five. I didn't get it. At all. I think I may have actually fallen asleep during the last battle, and I didn't think it was any good at all. Only an aggressive campaign of re-education by my sister, who was gaga over Star Wars, converted me, and when I saw it a second time, that was it. I was gone, man.

Of course, home video didn't exist at all back then. Nor did it exist three years later, when The Empire Strikes Back came out. Back then, it was a status symbol to have seen it before your friends; and then, when everyone had seen it, it was a status symbol to have seen it more times than your friends. (Somehow, it never occurred to me to doubt the word of friends who claimed to viewings of TESB numbering in the dozens. Maybe for high schoolers or college-aged people, but we were third graders.)

Three years later, Return of the Jedi, and this "home video" thing is only starting to sound like a possibility for the future. More competition over who saw it first, and more competition over who saw it the most. (And strangely, I don't recall a single one of my friends bitching about the Ewoks at the time. Hmmmmm.)

And, consider this: through all that, the only way to see one of the previous films was to wait for a re-release. They weren't even on television -- until 1984, a year after ROTJ came out, when A New Hope finally appeared for the first time on network television. I remember that telecast with almost utter clarity. CBS made it a Big Event, expanding the thing to take the entirety of its primetime schedule, which, for a movie that's only a few minutes over two hours long, required lots of extra stuff. Introductory bits by Mark Hamill; each commercial break was greeted by some celeb or other -- just incidentally, many of them stars of various CBS series -- sharing some recollection of Star Wars or other, followed by a bit of documentary stuff about the making of the three films.

Home video started to percolate seriously a year later. Other families got VCRs, and we got ours in spring of 1985, if memory serves. I remember the first video rental joints, where you had to pay refundable fifty-dollar deposits on the movies in addition to the rental fee, and where you had to pay for membership to be able to rent in the first place. And I remember that I started seeing movies on VHS tapes for sale in places like Waldenbooks -- lots of movies I didn't care much about, but two that I most certainly did: Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, both retailing for $79.95.

Eighty bucks, for two movies. Can you imagine paying eighty bucks for a single movie these days? On a tape? With a full-screen video image, and no extras? Not on your life. These days, if we're going to spend eighty bucks on a video purchase, it had better be some big Box Set of eight or nine movies with tons of extras or rarities involved. And those price points stayed where they were for quite a while. It was only a year or two later when the films came down to $39.95. And even while the idea of people buying movies because they might want to own them was starting to seep out, the studios and their home video outfits kept putting out their major releases as "priced for rental" releases -- meaning, the retail price point was so high as to discourage pesky "collectors". Contrast that with the fact that just about everybody has cheap DVDs on sale today.

So when did I get my first home video copy of Star Wars? Strangely enough, from a friend (Mr. Jones, actually) who had family members somewhere who had ponied up the eighty bucks (or maybe they'd joined something like Columbia House) for copies of ANH and TESB, and who then dubbed copies for Mr. Jones. I recall watching TESB with Matt at his home one summer afternoon -- if memory serves, we rewinded the asteroid field chase three times -- and finally he was able to make copies of the movies for me when he went to visit those family relations of his. These were my only copies of the first two Star Wars films for about five years. (I then dubbed my own copy of ROTJ around 1987 or 1988 or thereabouts.)

I proceeded to watch those cruddy dubbed copies into the ground, and I finally replaced them with my first-ever credit card when I was in college, and the three films were on sale at Wal-Mart for $19.95 each. Wow! All three for less than what one film had cost at the outset of the home video revolution! These copies formed the basis of a single-evening viewing of the entire trilogy later that fall, the first time I ever indulged that particular bit of geekiness. (And really, if you've never watched the entire original Star Wars trilogy in one sitting, I highly recommend doing so. Return of the Jedi's emotional structure is really enhanced when you've just watched ANH and TESB.)

We had a couple more "Complete Trilogy" viewing nights before graduation, and then I was back home, and bored, taking more college classes and being generally directionless and eight hundred miles away from The Girlfriend (who was later to become The Wife, but who did not move here with me until nearly a year after I graduated from college in Iowa), and I was in this new store called "Media Play" (which was a freaking revelation of a retail establishment back in 1994), and I saw this nifty-looking boxed set of the Star Wars trilogy, but it had a funny word on the top: "Letterboxed". At first I thought this referred to the actual, physical box the thing came in, but when I examined things further, it suddenly made sense to me. And yeah, it should have been blindingly obvious, but maybe I was dense. "Holy shit! The TV isn't the same dimensions as the movie screen! There's visual stuff missing from Star Wars that I haven't seen since I last saw them in theaters, over a decade ago!"

Some penny-saving commenced, for that box set was something like eighty bucks. (Hey, it had a nifty book-thing about George Lucas and mythology as well as a tape containing a documentary about the making of the films called "Once Upon a Galaxy" or something like that.) But I finally bought that box, took it home, and watched the first five minutes of Star Wars just to see what I'd been missing.

The opening crawl? I could read it from the outset, and didn't have to wait until it was halfway into the distance before the entire line was in the frame. Tatooine had moons! While Vader was choking some poor Rebel captain to death, stormtroopers were running around in the background! Amazing! And even though not a single one of those tapes has entered my VCR in probably ten years, I still own that box.

Two years later, the original trilogy is relaunched, with something called "THX". I didn't know what that was, but I bought the box anyway. And that became my prime copy of the trilogy. Until the Special Edition box came in 1997. (So, if you're keeping track, I was now up to my fifth set of copies of the Star Wars films.)

And then, in 1999, The Phantom Menace arrived, and a year later, its video release. It was a pretty classy VHS release, actually, with a little booklet and a couple of celluloid frames from the film itself (mine came from the scene at the very end with Yoda talking to Mace Windu, during Qui Gon's funeral).

As regular readers of this blog know, I didn't join the DVD party until early 2003, and that's when I acquired The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones on disc. And then, a year ago, the original trilogy -- followed at last by today's purchase.

I've been watching Star Wars at home for so long that seeing it in theaters is an almost quaint memory. I haven't seen any of the original trilogy films on the big screen since 1997 (when the Special Editions were out), and before that, since the early 1980s. And of course, the mechanics of the home video market now pretty much rule out large-scale re-releases except for very special circumstances. It frankly wouldn't surprise me if I never see a Star Wars film on a big screen again.

Is that bad? I don't know. I'm not one to assign major significance to the communal aspect of the theater-going experience; I'm one to internalize art, to examine my own emotional response to it, and quite frankly, lots of times I find that all these other people around me detract from that, and not just by being boorish -- I just always have it in the back of my mind that someone in the same room as me is watching the same story, or viewing the same dance, or hearing the same music, and just not getting it. Or that I'm the one not getting it, and I'm looking around at the people in rapt attention and wondering what the hell they're seeing or hearing or feeling in the thing at hand. There are exceptions to this, of course -- the experience of seeing Revenge of the Sith on opening night, and hearing my friend's stunned whisper of "Holy shit!" when Anakin cut Mace Windu's hand off, is one of the greatest memories I'll ever have of communal art experience -- but by and large, I tend to be troubled by my certainty that I've experienced something different from all those other folks.

I love to share art, and to talk about the things I enjoy and even adore and venerate; but the actual experience, for me, almost has to be private. In a real way, Star Wars is mine. And now it's mine with crystal digital clarity and gorgeous, crisp sound. A far cry from those full-screen VHS tapes, with their fuzzy images due to dubbing and their crappy sound from playing them to death on an old and dirty VCR, but still mine. The experience is still mine.

And now that experience is complete, and I know how it all comes out in the end. Just like a Shaker hymn.

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