Forcing the Balance, Or How I Learned to Stop Worshiping Star Wars and Understand Myself

This piece began in the Spring of 2002 as an essay that I thought would provide a compelling new understanding of the Star Wars films. After writing more than a dozen versions, I had yet to produce something that met with the approval of an editor I was working with. Frustrated, I put the piece away, figuring I’d come back to it a few years later, hoping the series’ final installment would give me what I needed to set things right. In the years between, seemingly unrelated events led me to an unexpected and crucial new understanding of myself, my entire life and all that I’d come to feel was most important for people. These things naturally seemed far more significant than any film analysis. And yet, to my surprise, I came to realize that these new insights were actually bound up with my interest in Star Wars, the ideas in the essay and the very fact that I failed to write it. Now, the piece itself has evolved into the larger story of how all these events came to pass.


Episode I: A Long Time Ago, In a Movie Theater Not So Far Away…

My earliest memory of Star Wars is pretty strange. Having heard the title, I somehow came to believe that the film was about battles between Hollywood celebrities — movie and TV stars, not massive gaseous body stars. To this day, burned on my brain is the image of a page from TV Guide with a big picture of Hollywood Squares center square mainstay Paul Lynde, grimace on his face as he points a gun, attempting to protect some sexy young starlet. I have no idea where this image came from. Did TV Guide actually run something like this, making some kind of pop-cultural reference to Star Wars? Was my seven-year-old mind so bizarre as to make up an image like this from scratch? I have no idea. Only as I wrote this piece did I think to look into the matter on the internet, where I found that Lynde had taken part in a Star Wars spoof on Donny & Marie Osmond’s variety show several months after the film was first released. In any case, I have no idea which was the bigger misunderstanding on my part, that Star Wars wasn’t at all what I somehow first thought it was, or that Paul Lynde was about the last person in Hollywood who could believably take on the macho role I’d assigned him.

It would be years before I’d learn enough to be set straight (pun intended) on Lynde. But it wouldn’t take long for me to learn what Star Wars really was. Sometime during the summer of 1977, with my dad and the father and son who lived next door, I went to the Roosevelt, a movie theater in Hyde Park, NY, lifelong home of the president (Franklin Delano) who gave his name to the theater. This was about a 25 minute drive from our house, a long way for us to go for a movie. But this was a time when there were only so many theaters around, and most or all still had just one screen. So when you wanted to see something specific, you went to where it was. Star Wars was playing at the Roosevelt, so that’s where we went. I don’t even remember the experience of seeing it that first time. I only remember the repercussions.

I would cut out the Roosevelt’s ad from every Sunday’s newspaper for months, reveling in how they’d change the banner each time, “Held Over — 20th Week,” “Held Over — 37th Week,” as if the film’s ever longer stay in the theater somehow validated me as a person a little more each week.

But the ads, of course, weren’t remotely enough. I became a magnet for all things Star Wars. I collected Star Wars trading cards. I got a color-it-yourself Star Wars poster — and colored it myself. I got a cardstock model of Darth Vader’s head, which I turned into a mask for a Halloween costume. I bought the 45 r.p.m. single of the disco version of the movie’s theme music — the first music recording I was ever inspired to buy. I bought the novelization. I bought comic books — both the regular size books with new stories, and the large-size books that retold the story of the film. I even found a blank notepad and created my own comic book, creating drawings and captions to tell the entire story. And, oh, the toys. How many action figures and play sets I got, and how much time my friends and I spent playing with them, reenacting scenes and inventing new ones, staging grand fights between good and evil. I still have most of these things — no original packaging, a few lost laser guns and ruffled pages, but all still in fairly good shape, and probably worth a nice chunk of change.

When Star Wars was re-released in 1979, I saw it again. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, I was there. When Star Wars was re-released yet again in 1981, I went. When I got home from that viewing, I somehow doubted that I’d ever get a chance to see it again on the big screen, and I wished I had a souvenir of my theatrical experiences with Star Wars. There and then, I vowed something along the lines of, “I’ll never be hungry again.” When I next went out to the movies the following week, I saved the ticket stub. Thus began a ritual that, unbelievably, I practice to this day, nearly a quarter-century later. I save the stubs from everything I see — and by now that collection includes two stubs for Star Wars itself, which, despite my initial concerns, has certainly continued to appear on screens both big and small — and which by now I’ve seen on screens of all sizes so many times that I’ve lost count.

All of this, though, pales in comparison to the film’s biggest influence on me. Of all the things related to Star Wars that Star Wars got me to want, making films is surely the most significant. From that point forward, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I don’t know what the thought process was, though I imagine it was the obvious, the same kinds of things that went through the heads of countless others who were turned onto films by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg around that same time. “These movies are great, these movies are popular, I want to do things that are great and popular, I want to make movies, too.”

And I was serious about it. I practiced with short stories. With cassette-taped, improvised variety shows. With puppet shows. In 1981, at the age of just 11, about the same time I began my ticket stub collection, I bought — and read in its entirety — William Goldman’s epic memoir about screenwriting in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Soon after, I began to come up with my own ideas for feature films, enough so that I had to start writing them down. Thus began the various “idea files” which I maintain to this day, including notions for many things other than films as well and running hundreds of pages long.

As soon as I could, I got involved in school drama clubs. Prior to the days of easy and cheap DIY digital video, this seemed the closest one could get to making movies when there was no filmmaking equipment around. With a writing partner, I even wrote a screenplay between the ages of 14 and 16. Of course, it was just a sequel to the Airplane! movies, but it was feature-length, and it was completed. At 15 I made a few crappy short movies on home VHS. Between 16 and 18, I co-wrote and composed the music for a full-length musical, Cupid’s Arrow, which my co-authors and I convinced our drama club to produce. I simultaneously served as director, vocal director and conductor.

In college at Cornell University, I finally got to make a few real short films (see 1, 2) — and I do mean films, Super 8 and 16mm, no easy way out with video. All were technically silent, but I was so compelled to use sound that I invented my own crude sound-sync method for my 17-minute magnum opus, Gratuitous Violence. I served as writer, director, editor, composer and cinematographer. And though my camera work left something to be desired, I was proud to achieve a virtually impossible two-to-one ratio, i.e., the final cut used about about half of all the film I’d shot.

As graduation approached, I felt I was coming closer to my destiny. I’d move out to California and find my way into the film industry. I’d happily do whatever tasks were handed to me, quickly proving myself and eventually working my way toward opportunities to write and direct. There’d be blockbusters, critical kudos, status, recognition, Oscars, beach houses. I’d become what I’d always wanted to be. I’d reach the destination that lie at the end of the path that I’d been set down by Star Wars.

6 comments for “Forcing the Balance, Or How I Learned to Stop Worshiping Star Wars and Understand Myself

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