Not Lived Up To


In San Francisco’s Northpoint Theater at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 1, 1977, San Francisco Examiner feature writer John Stark attended the premiere of a science-fiction movie at the invitation of a friend who worked as a theater booker. “No press allowed,” this friend had told him. “It’s a single screening by Fox… to gauge audience reaction. If you want to go I can sneak you in with the projectionists.” Stark was in his early twenties at that time, up for whatever: “There was no buzz about the film,” he wrote in a blog post, many years later. “How could there be? No one had seen it… The sci-fi genre was considered deader than dead.” The pair seated themselves just before the show began. “The auditorium was packed with people of all ages,” Stark recalls. “There were a lot of families.”

“That’s the director, George Lucas, sitting in front of us,” his friend whispered.

Lucas, in attendance with his wife, Marcia, was anticipating the worst, according to a highly entertaining account of the morning’s events in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s seminal book about seventies Hollywood. “Previews always mean recutting,” the director surmised gloomily.

“The suits were there, Ladd and his executives,” Biskind wrote. “Marcia had always said, ‘If the audience doesn’t cheer when Han Solo comes in at the last second in the Millennium Falcon to help Luke when he’s being chased by Darth Vader, the picture doesn’t work.’”

Stark described what happened next:

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

I was taken aback. The past? Whoever heard of a sci-fi film that didn’t take place in the future? But that was only the first of the film’s many startling innovations…

As the plot unfolded the audience became more and more pumped: cheering, laughing, clapping. It was as if we were all passengers on a fantastic journey. I’ve yet to experience a more electric moment at the movies than when Han Solo’s spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, jumped to lightspeed. The man sitting next to me had his little girl on his lap. They both screamed with joy. The whole theater did.

I was a teenager at that time, and found myself just as transported as the rest of the world, easily shedding my proud, foolish carapace of habitual ennui. It was the wrong sort of movie for an uppity teen to like, not having been directed by Jean-Luc Godard or equivalent, but everything about Star Wars was that irresistibly fresh and new, and we uppity teenagers fell for it in droves. It’s wonderful to me, too, that Marcia Lucas should have known exactly what the key moment in the film was, having labored and thought over it for years with her husband, without having the foggiest clue what effect that moment would have on a real audience. Its appeal, its message of redemption and loyalty, the surprise of it — so perfectly timed, so obvious-but-not-obvious — is a nakedly emotional one. Sure, people have to look after their own interests. But when they come forward, despite everything, to risk themselves on something they believe in, something greater than themselves, in honor of friendship, or of justice, or out of some other private imperative? It’s the most thrilling thing in the world.

There’s a lovely old phrase my mom taught me: “mi novio del cine,” “my movie boyfriend.” That is, the movie star of one’s dreams. Harrison Ford has always been my chief novio del cine.The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Blade Runner debuted in 1980, 1981 and 1982 respectively, and it was as if Rick Blaine had come back to life. Or rather, some alchemically potent combination of Rick Blaine, George Bailey, James Bond, and Allan Quatermain. Harrison Ford, detached, comely, witty, playful, elegant, though not too elegant to appear in a mass-market entertainment, was like a cisphoon, a cisnado or cisquake (The Big One) of male beauty. He was altogether disturbing to a teen, and in the best way. That old phrase! Sex Appeal.

My younger friends have been mystified, even outraged, that I do not care too much for the new movie. It’s been difficult to explain my disappointment exactly, when there is so much about it to admire. The Force Awakens is a thousand times more impressive technically than the first and second films, Episodes IV and V; it has the most wonderfully appealing new characters in Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron; it has excitement and dash. [Ed. note: Spoilers follow*, you baby.]

What it does not do is evoke a single strong emotion, so much as the ghost of one — even in the face of genocide, the destruction of whole planets. Not that I absolutely require fiction to produce some specific sign of the cross on our behalf in depicting a tragedy; not when at this very moment there are tens of thousands starving to death in the real world, just for starters, and the real news goes by every day without so much as a mention of them. Seen in a certain light, it would be a disgrace to demand empathy in the movie, considering what is really going on out there. This is escapism and fun, and lord knows we could use that.

But even so, the film failed to create what I most wished to feel: real grief at the passing of a cultural moment. By rights I should have felt, very much wanted to feel, not sad but inconsolable, given what Han Solo has meant, not just to me but kind of at large, during the greater part of my life. But the moment just raced by — oh, sad! and whoosh to the next thing — it was derivative, unexplained and unfelt. So that the concept of adulthood of a whole generation, forged in no small part according to the imagination and wit of Harrison Ford, was forgotten or misplaced in the mad rush to satisfy — what? The visual impulse, maybe: achievement unlocked there, for sure. Maybe also there was an understandable desire to bury the failed prequels in a series of deafening echoes of the original trilogy, the part of the story people are loyal to. I appreciate that a lot, because we really are very loyal. I mean, for literal decades my main to-do list has been headlined There Is No Try.

Part of regret is feeling the loss of those beautiful things that have been degraded or lessened, or otherwise not lived up to, but there is a lot more to it.

Oriel College, Oxford, is trying to figure out what to do about its giant statue of Cecil Rhodes after students at the University of Cape Town decided they had had enough of their own Rhodes statue, which was removed from its pride of place on the UCT campus last April after a student named Chumani Maxwele flung a bucket of poop over poor closeted old Cecil, thereby igniting a series of protests that became known in the press as “Rhodes Rage.”

The dude who threw shit at the statue of Cecil Rhodes is my inspiration, because what else is there to do with that kind of thing?

— Aaron Bady (@zunguzungu) May 15, 2015

There have been a lot of attempts at revisionism this year, one way and another. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is changing the titles and descriptions of various exhibits with a view to eradicating racist words such as “negro,” “Moor,” “Mohammedan” and so on, changing, for example, the title of a painting from “Young negro girl” to “Young girl holding a fan.” Woodrow Wilson’s racist and segregationist beliefs were characterized as a “toxic legacy” by the New York Times Editorial Board last month, as student protesters demanded the renaming of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.

The answer won’t and shouldn’t be the same in each instance, but the dangers inherent in this sort of erasure should be considered very carefully. In particular the desire, often seen among the young, not to be offended, to somehow get rid of every offensive thing or utterance, is terrifically dangerous.

No: Be offended, speak up, don’t try to shut anyone down, make them reveal themselves! If you shut people up, hide the statue, their bad feeling won’t go away, history won’t go away. It will only fester in some gross corner. We can only bring the new world about by getting in a big family argument of the sort we all dread but somehow survive every year. Granted, that can be uncomfortable. But it is extremely useful. For example, the sole service ol’ Biff Trump has done the nation is to show, day by day and in painstaking detail, exactly what it is that must be stopped dead in its tracks come November.

Cecil Rhodes, zillionaire founder of the DeBeers diamond empire, was a fucking monster. He is a real embarrassment to anybody who would defend the patriarchy. Here he is in 1887, addressing the government on whether or not to permit “the natives” of South Africa the vote:

Does this House think it right that men in a state of pure barbarism should have the franchise and vote? The natives do not want it […] let them be a subject race, and keep the liquor from them […] We have to face the question and it must be brought home to them that in the future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in daily labour, in physical work, in manual labour.

Today, black Rhodes Scholars from Africa attend Oxford. William Jefferson Clinton, also something of a monster — though substantially less of a monster than Cecil Rhodes — was a Rhodes Scholar. There are just a handful of tenured professors at the University of Cape Town who are black. Wilson was a segregationist horrorshow, and also he was the president of this country, if a weak one; a founder of the League of Nations, and a pacifist. What I mean by all this is that every institution we possess is irremediably tainted.

We don’t want to get rid of the past; what we want is to regret it. Move the statue, yes, but don’t destroy it. We must supply ourselves with plenty of buckets of poo, and never forget a thing. Oxford classicist Mary Beard made a similar point a few days go in the Independent, expressing admiration for student activism and resistance to racism, but cautioning against what she saw as a “dangerous attempt to try to erase the past.”

“Of course Rhodes was a racist,” she said. “My worries are about the narrower historical point: that history can’t be unwritten or hidden away, or erased when we change our minds. We need to face the past and our dependence on it and do better than it… that’s what the past is for.”

In other words, if we get rid of the statue, where will we even aim the poo.

To regret is three things: to lament our personal failings; to mourn the lovely things that are irretrievably past; and to know our own brevity, the fleetingness of the bad, as well as the good. It is among the sweetest and most perfectly human of emotions, and it is to be sought, and savored. Without regret we will understand nothing about where we are, or how we arrived here; what we did right, or wrong. Quoting Seneca in an essay, Francis Bacon wrote in 1625: “The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired.” It hurts, but that’s all to the good; through your whole life, everything you feel is going to have been worth it. We need to look back, in love and in sadness, in order to know ourselves.

*Honestly, if you care that much about being spoiled, why haven’t you see the movie already? But I also don’t feel like dealing with mad Twitter eggs, so who is really the baby here?

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.