In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.
Anticipation for a film can be like great sex.
The foreplay starts when the film is announced, giving fans a hint that something great is to come. The slow build of anticipation can be excitingly agonizing. News bits are teased like a nibble on your earlobe, pictures are released from the set — the brief flashes making moviegoers anxious for the full reveal — and quotes tease the mind with plot threads as vague as an erect nipple through a cotton blouse. Finally, it all climaxes on the opening weekend; and that first viewing can sometimes be even better than the build up, or it can be a frustrating experience as the film exposes itself as something lesser than the fantasy built up in your mind.
To properly hype a film is a delicate dance. Studio marketing teams must be careful not to show too much too quickly, while still ensuring the filmgoer remains not only interested, but almost intoxicated by the perfume of previews.
I learned all of this as an 8-year-old. The film that taught me this lesson was Return of the Jedi.
Up until the spring of 1983 moviegoing was always spurred by an adult in my life. Even when I picked the film we attended I chose by simply looking at the newspaper listings, with no knowledge of release dates or whether the film was leaving theaters soon.
I usually became aware of a film upon its release. As mentioned in yesterday’s E.T. article, I watched Siskel & Ebert At The Movies weekly to learn about new films, but until their review aired I knew nothing about new movies being made. I may have seen an ad or two on television or trailers before other movies started, but I was too young for any of that to grab my attention.
I was too young to plan.
But that started to change after The Empire Strikes Back, with its unresolved cliffhanger of an ending. Being only 5 years old when I first saw Empire, I couldn’t fathom waiting three years for a conclusion to a story. After all, that was more than half my lifetime!
Primarily due to the toys, Star Wars was a constant topic of playground conversation, and throughout first, second, and third grade rumors about the next Star Wars film spread through the grapevine like urban legend.
“George Lucas was going to make Return of the Jedi three years after Empire, just as Empire was three years after Star Wars!”
“Then he’s planning to take a break for a few years, and release the next movie — Episode I — in 1989!”
To this day I don’t know how much of the “news” I heard about future Star Wars films was made up, how much came from news and magazines — passed down from parent to child — or how much I’ve learned since that has retroactively mingled in my imaginings.
What I do remember is the anticipation — for years — of that next Star Wars film.
I was not a child who dealt well with suspense. Commercial breaks were often agonizing torture, and season-finale cliffhangers would cause me physical pain — the need to know. But for three years I battled, wanting so badly to see what happened in the final Star Wars film.
Yet, despite all the anguish and all the talk about that third film it never felt real until late 1982 — six months before Return of the Jedi‘s release. When the trailers and magazine articles started, when toys started to hit shelves bearing the new, red Return of the Jedi logo, when bookstores had entire displays of Star Wars books promoting the upcoming film… that was when 8-year-old Arnie went insane.
Toys, books, and magazines were all purchased in anticipation of this film — surrogates I used to try and satiate my desires until the Jedi’s release. My godparents would placate me with a deal: If I did good in school that week, then on Saturday they would take me to buy one action figure.
ONE!?!?! But there were dozens on the store shelves, and so many more to come! I would watch Saturday morning cartoons and make lists of all the figures being released. I took a cardback and would X off each figure I owned as a way of marking time until I could have them all.
My parents, however, were not as indulgent regarding toys. They did however encourage me to read, and so I remember one Sunday going to the (now closed) local bookshop, The Book Emporium. There I saw a massive display of Star Wars novels, and a poster promoting the upcoming release of a Return of the Jedi novelization! That image of two hands clasping the blue lightsaber was burned into my brain, and to this day it is my iconic image of that film. I couldn’t bear it so I badgered my father to buy me all the Star Wars books, and I took my pleasures where I could — reading the novelizations of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to fully re-experience those stories before seeing Return of the Jedi.
Finally, two weeks before the film was out, the novelization by James Kahn was in stores. I bought it the Saturday after it was released and tore into it. I couldn’t wait any longer for Return of the Jedi — the thirteen days until the film would be in theaters was agonizing. I had to have it now. I read like I’d never read before, page after page, excited for every new reveal.
It was a feeling like I was doing something naughty. There was forbidden knowledge in this book! I knew things no one else on the playground knew!
So excited was I about my insight into this upcoming movie that I would regale my sister Susan with anecdotes from the novel. Perhaps wanting me to have a pure movie experience (perhaps just wanting to shut me up), she introduced me to the concept of what we now call a “spoiler.”
She asked me if I was ruining the movie by knowing all about it before I saw it. Now, I wanted to see this movie more than I wanted air to breathe, so I promised her I would not read the last 50 pages. The film’s ending I would save for the screen.
But the waiting was killing me. Never before had I paid careful attention to a film’s opening date, but that year I knew Return of the Jedi would open on May 25. I had never been to an evening movie before — my parents always saved money by taking me to matinees — but Susan promised to take me opening night. My childhood best friend Stuart, now my co-host on Now Playing Podcast, also joined us.
We went early; Susan knowing that her brother wasn’t the only one anxious for Jedi. Still, the line was long at the Fox Theater in Springfield. It ran the full length of the strip mall, and for a half-hour we stood right outside the toy store where I practically drooled over the giant Star Wars toy display in the window.
Walking down the line, working the crowd, was Darth Vader. I’d seen costumed characters before on stage shows, and sometimes superheroes would appear at that very same toy store. But those were scheduled appearances. I had no concept of cosplay, and I was somewhat frightened by this tall man carrying the Kenner lightsaber. Part of me knew he wasn’t the real Darth Vader, and part of me hoped he was indeed the Sith Lord come to terrorize my town.
When we got to the box office we were told there were only 3 tickets left for the film — all of us could get in, but we couldn’t sit together. My sister was flummoxed by this, as we were two children in her care for the night.
But I didn’t care who I sat by, or didn’t sit by, just get me in that theater! Sorry Stuart. Sorry Susan. I cared more about seeing Return of the Jedi than spending time with either of you!
That was another radical shift. Up until that point in my life, movies were always a social event. I couldn’t imagine watching a movie alone, and going to a cinema was always as much about time with friends and family as it was the film itself.
Not this time. This time Return of the Jedi and I had to be together. Now.
So in we went. I had an end-of-the-aisle seat next to a stranger. Before the lights dimmed I tried to look around and see where Stuart and Susan were seated, but the theater was large and soon I ceased to care. They never once entered my thoughts as I was transported at 0.5-past-lightspeed to a galaxy far, far away.
The film moved so fast and had so many vivid creature designs that I instantly forgot everything I had read in the book. On the page I had only my own imaginings, and a few photos in the middle of the novel, to aid in the visualization of the story. Now, with dancing Twi’leks, organ-playing muppets, and slithering Hutts the film consumed me whole — as the Rancor would to the Gamorrean guard. The Emperor, the red-robed Royal Guards, the speeder bikes, they enthralled me. But my favorite were the Ewoks. Some have claimed the fierce teddy bears were Lucas’ crass marketing attempt to appeal to children. It worked. I was hooked by these furry, man-eating creatures, and immediately every Ewok figure was at the top of my toy-buying list.
When the Death Star exploded, I didn’t care that it was a retread of the same climax Lucas had done six years earlier, the one I’d watched on VHS nearly every day after school. Evil was defeated. That was what mattered.
This film lived up to what I wanted at that age. It was love-at-first-viewing, and like any new romance the euphoria made me proclaim it the best movie I’d ever seen. I knew I had seen E.T. 12 times in theaters the year before, so I would not be satisfied until I’d seen Jedi 13 times and it could claim my record.
(At 17 viewings, counting the ‘97 rerelease and a convention screening, Jedi is to this day the movie I’ve seen most often theatrically.)
As an adult I feel Return of the Jedi, while still very good, is by far the weakest of the three original Star Wars films. The pacing is downright odd, with too much time spent rescuing Han Solo in a subplot far removed from the main action of the saga. Lucas had painted himself into a corner and it took a long side-trip to the Pit of Carkoon to fix it. Yoda’s death was convenient, Luke and Leia’s sibling relationship was contrived, and Han Solo was neutered.
Jedi was also the first Star Wars film where I felt Lucas was too ambitious and the technology was not able to realize his vision. From Imperial Walkers to Tauntauns to Landspeeders to Yoda, the effects wizards in Lucas’ employ had made it all work in his previous films. But in Jedi the seams were showing — quite literally in the case of the puppets in Jabba’s palace. From the shoddy matting of the Rancor to the poor articulation in the Ewok faces, this is the Star Wars film that looks the most fake.
Lucas would try to fix some of these technical issues in myriad re-releases, starting with the Special Edition in 1997. Each time Jedi got a little worse, right down to the creepy insertion of Hayden Christensen at the end, and Darth Vader’s lame battle cry of “Noooooo.”
Still, despite these issues, the core storyline of Vader’s redemption, a son’s determination to save his father, and the final battle between good and evil makes this a worthy entry in the Star Wars franchise.
But this experience — anticipating a film so hotly that I was near-obsessed — was euphoric. To this day few experiences in my life are as pleasurable as the anticipation for a great, exciting movie.
It was this level of hype I had for the remake of Friday the 13th that launched Now Playing Podcast’s first retrospective series. That same hype for The Avengers, more than one year before its release, instigated Now Playing’s Marvel Movie Retrospective.
As for future hype, I look at Star Wars Episode VII. I believed for 30 years that the Star Wars story ended with Return of the Jedi, but Lucas’ decision to retire — combined with Disney shareholders’ lust for profit — mean the story will continue. Part of me feels like this is a spinoff, a story based on characters created by George Lucas. Episode VII is in completely unnecessary, save for the Disney folks who watch it with dollar signs in their eyes.
But… it could be good. The recent reveal of an X-Wing is pulling at my nostalgic love for the original trilogy. Certainly all the marketers at Disney will try to seduce me. The images revealed, the first trailers, will all be Episode VII courting me, teasing me, trying to gain my interest and make me excited. Time will tell if Star Wars can still get me hot and bothered 32 years later.
But I’ll never forget my first, and as such Return of the Jedi will always be special.
Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys. You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec