I’ve written about watching movies with my children in this column, about introducing my son Miles to the films of Ray Harryhausen and watching him vomit during a viewing of E.T.. Having an amateur’s enthusiasm for films that span the history of cinema, I’m determined to provide my kids with a young cinephile’s education, steering them to Miyazaki and Melies and away from, say, The Backyardigans. My daughter, 2 1/2, has begun to ask, “Can we watch a ballet movie on your iPhone?” Which is why, in recent weeks, I have watched the following video, oh, thirty times :
Scarlett and I recently enjoyed Powell and Pressburger’s flat-out bizarre Technicolor ballet film Tales of Hoffman and are soon to move on to The Red Shoes. All pretense of gender neutrality has tended to go out the window when curating the films I expose my children to, and having a little girl has done wonders to underscore my identity as a straight dude. She really wants to watch singing and dancing. The films I watch with her are going to end up being discoveries for me, while the ones I share with Miles are films that helped define my boyhood. And no other film dominates that early masculine narrative as much as Star Wars.
Some weeks ago, I accompanied Miles and his grandfather, my father-in-law, to an event called Star Wars Live at Key Arena in Seattle. An 80-piece orchestra played passages of John Williams’s score as a big screen displayed clips from the six films. Anthony Daniels, the actor inside the C3PO suit, narrated the event, and out in the causeways vitrines displayed original movie props like blasters, light sabers, and the Chewbacca and Darth Vader costumes. The show itself was lots of fun, in a highlight reel sort of way, and there were light sabers aplenty among the fanboys. Miles left enraptured, and I knew it was only a matter of time before my wife and I put aside our wussy-ass liberal anti-guns policy and let him watch the original trilogy.
And yet, by the time he was four, osmotically, through the complex folklore of the playground, Miles had already assembled an understanding of the Star Wars universe. One afternoon, picking him up from preschool, I found him huddled with three other boys, engaged in a serious debate. As I approached, one of the boys asked, with the kind of earnestness only a four-year-old can muster, “Is Darth Vader really Luke Skywalker’s dad?”
The moment felt precious to me, and reminded me of the horrible instant I first learned the true identity of Luke’s dad. My classmate David Reed, whose parents had driven him to Seattle to see the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, pulled the most dickish maneuver in grade school history by spilling the beans the moment he stepped into class the next day. “Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad, everyone!” Decades later, cornered by four gentlemen wearing shirts with dinosaurs and robots on them, I reluctantly confirmed the truth about Luke’s parentage.
(I would like to also point out that David Reed was at the center of another Star Wars-related memory, the fiasco that was my one and only slumber birthday party. The mayhem of that event resulted in each boy sleeping in a separate corner of the house. The trouble began when I was accused of drawing a dick and balls on C3PO on David’s Star Wars pee-chee. Called before a jury of my mother and David’s mom, I pleaded my innocence on aesthetic grounds, arguing that this just wasn’t the way I drew dicks and balls, that the dick and balls on David Reed’s pee-chee C3PO were the work of an inferior artist who didn’t take necessary care to realistically depict the pee hole, and who crafted the testicles as simple circles on either side of the shaft rather than being realistically confined to a scrotum. Didn’t they know I was an artist? The verdict: innocent. Later I shoved David into my closet and leaned against the door so he couldn’t get out.)
Nowadays pee-chees are the least of the licensed merchandise. Star Wars has been franchised to the hilt. Its scope encompasses not just the goopy, CGI’ed episode 1-3 prequels, but the animated series Star Wars: Clone Wars. The characters from this latter series have begun to usurp the primacy of the Luke/Han/Leia ensemble that my generation typically thinks of when thinking about Star Wars. Muscling their way into our collective consciousness of the Star Wars pantheon, with muscles rendered on computers in Marin County, are Commander Cody, Captain Rex, and Asajj Ventriss. I don’t know who the hell these people are, and I’m not in a hurry to watch computer animated versions of them.
If that sounds curmudgeonly, I can live with that. My plan for introducing Miles to Star Wars has been a picky and rule-bound process, and I’ve spent the past couple years fretting that he’d be exposed to the hideous ’90s remastered versions at some kid’s house during a play date. When I worked at Amazon, one of the studios I worked with was 20th Century Fox, which distributes the Star Wars movies. Fox sort of begrudgingly merchandised the DVDs, as George Lucas had maneuvered such a killer deal for himself that the studio to this day barely makes any money on Star Wars releases. Among the many editions of the films they released are two-disc versions of episodes IV-VI, the second disc of which include the original versions of the films seen in theaters in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These are the correct versions, even though they scandalized anal-retentive fans, who groused on message boards that they weren’t anamorphic. Well shit, life is just not always fair.
Earlier this month, over two nights, my wife and I sat with Miles as he watched what’s now called A New Hope for the first time. I hadn’t seen it in over a decade, and watching it again with my arm around my son stoked all those old primal childhood adventure feelings. When I asked Miles what his favorite moment was, he said it was when Luke gets his father’s light saber from Obi Wan.
Watching it again was different than simply refamiliarizing myself with one of the most widely-loved works of 20th century art; I simultaneously observed previous versions of myself watching it. I layered this new viewing experience on top of the old ones, as I hope to someday add the layer of viewing of it with my grandchildren. I overhead my parents asking our neighbors if it was too scary for me. I craned to look over the seat in front of me to see R2D2 and C3PO trudging and kvetching across the desert. Walking to the car after watching The Empire Strikes Back I held my dad’s hand as he sighed, “Well, they turned Han Solo into a candy bar.” I returned to the same theater some years later as a teenager during a brief re-run of the film. I slipped a VHS tape into the VCR in Olympia, Washington. I cringed at the added-on bullshit of the remastered versions in a multiplex.
I think I like to flatter myself that, when sharing a cherished work of art with my son, I’m introducing him to something he’ll find valuable, something that will supplement his education. But after watching Star Wars with Miles it struck me that I wasn’t sharing it out of hope that he’ll develop good taste in movies. I was sharing it with him because I wanted to tell him something about his father, who was once a boy growing up on a farm, a long time ago, and not so far away.