I’ve not seen the new film so I can’t spoil it for you. But although I hope to get out of work early today to see it, it’s not the film that’s on my mind. I’m not really thinking of any of the Star Wars films themselves, I am thinking of how they crop up every few decades and remind me of everything else that was going on.
It’s like life is this long rope back down the mountain and the Star Wars movies are pitons in the rock. They are fixed points and each one reminds me of that spot in time even though the films themselves aren’t a big part of those moments. I mean, I have a uselessly good memory for footage: for example there’s a certain type of US TV drama whose closing credits would be done over clips from the episode and I always unerringly notice when the clip is a different take. Totally useless, though sometimes handy when you’re editing video and can remember seeing just the right moment within the hours of footage. So I’m footage-aware, except with Star Wars.
When the prequels are on the telly I have caught myself wondering if I even saw these films because I don’t recognise anything. And as big as all the Star Wars movies were, maybe none were as anticipated as Return of the Jedi. We’d had Star Wars itself, we’d had The Empire Strikes Back which as well as ending on a cliffhanger was also just a good film, so Jedi was a big deal. In six movies, the single frame I remember from seeing in the cinema is an early shot in Jedi where we see the Death Star and I thought oh. We’re late getting into the cinema, such long queues genuinely around the block at the Gaumont in Birmingham, and they’ve started the film before we are at our seats. Doing that excuse me, pardon me, thanks dance through the line, I am seeing the Death Star on screen and all interest, all excitement somehow punctured.
That’s all I remember from the films as I saw them in the cinema: the deflation at Jedi, that single shot somehow telling me this was not going to be a great night. It wasn’t and there’s probably a life lesson in how I believed it was a disappointingly poor film but we didn’t yet have the prequels to know what poor means.
I do remember a vague shot from when I went to see Empire. It’s much less clear in my mind and partly because it isn’t from The Empire Strikes Back at all. I’d won a contest in the Evening Mail and got to see an early screening. I remember the thrill of being in a cinema during the day to see an exclusive screening and the footage I remember is from one of the Omen movies that was playing when we were led back out through the auditorium.
For Star Wars itself, I say the title and I see a very young me walking with my mom across an ice-cold Birmingham. I remember excitement, I remember my mother saying she didn’t understand the film, I think I remember her holding my hand. I do remember us having a meal out at a Berni Inn. I remember how special that was. If you remember that chain of steakhouses, you may think I’m being sarcastic but no, it was special at the time.
I was the exact perfect age for the original Star Wars when it first came out. Exactly perfect: with Star Wars I was a little boy rooting for Luke and Leia to get together but by the time Empire came out I was old enough to see that Luke was wet and Han Solo was the guy. Later every man you know is supposed to have gulped a bit at Princess Leia’s gold bikini in Return of the Jedi and I didn’t. I saw that and felt I was supposed to gulp. I resented it: you think you can push my hormones around? But I had fallen hard for Carrie Fisher in Empire and maybe it’s because she had more to do in that, she was a more interesting character clad in white snow gear instead of barely wearing gold. Maybe I was also getting all sophisticated: I think it was around Empire that I finally nodded and thought yes, it was right that Star Wars had lost out at the Oscars to Annie Hall.
I’m a boy for Star Wars, I’m hormonal for Empire, I’m disappointed for Jedi. Flash forward to 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out and what I remember so vividly is going to see another press screening. I’m now a BBC film reviewer, writing for Ceefax and possibly the nascent BBC News Online if that had started yet. Sitting in a very large press screening, aware that somewhere over there on that opposite side there’s Barry Norman. I’m seeing a film at the same time as quite legendary film reviewer.
I’m also seeing it at the same time as my editor from Ceefax. Never before or after did the editor go to a screening with the reviewer, never before or after would two people go to any screening, but this was big. The first Star Wars in nearly two decades. I remember going in to that Leicester Square screening with her, I remember us coming out. I liked that editor a lot and far, far more than I liked the film and I hope she felt the same. I know she felt the same about the film.
There was this giant, giant movie, this world event really, and I can see us walking out of the cinema into bright sunshine and all thoughts of the film evaporating. We were more interested in what we were doing for the rest of the day, getting back to the newsroom, the other deadlines going on, anything but the movie.
That was 16 years ago. Today my BBC work is behind me and I’m not reviewing Star Wars for anyone. But I’m going to a screening and I’m thinking of the work I’m doing now, I’m thinking actually rather excitedly positive thoughts about what I get to do these days. More excited about my work than about this movie. I’m also just thinking of that editor, of that Death Star, of Carrie Fisher’s heart-buckling Nordic look in Empire and her superb writing style since then, I’m thinking of The Omen and how the Gaumont cinema is long gone, I am thinking of an ice-cold night walking across Birmingham holding hands with my mother.
Who needs to actually see Star Wars?