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Degenerational X

[whitespace] Obi-wan and Anakin Skywalker

Can 'The Phantom Menace' outhype the original 'Star Wars'?

By Richard von Busack

THAT BIG FISH! Jabba the Hutt standing on the balcony in front of the cheering crowds, like the pope! British thespians forgetting everything they learned as actors!

If I have to read one more person telling me that the release of The Phantom Menace will be the "defining moment of my generation!" I'll lose my popcorn all over the theater. Why can't my heart get started over this? Why won't you respond, heart, to the newspaper articles on toy frenzy, line frenzy, anticipation frenzy--speculations about the characters of Heineken Skywalker, Darth Brooks and Jedi Clampett.

Not even the space-fish that eats the rocket ship excites me that much. Speaking of fish, I went to a James Bond convention once, and they had on display (no kidding) the plastic maggots to which 007 fed a villain in License to Kill. Now that's precious memorabilia that will never age--nor custom stale.

But I'm trying to change the subject, which is that eagerly anticipated movie we're all waiting for. It's only five short months until the release of the new 007 film, The World Is Not Enough. I'm in line already. Or I would be if I knew where it was playing. I want all those reporters to come visit my indigent self, sitting in a lawn chair outside a theater that might possibly be playing the new James Bond movie by Thanksgiving. It's the defining moment of my degeneration!

What? It bores you to hear me talk of James Bond? Imagine how I feel, then, exposed relentlessly to URLs, pleading fans, even thinly disguised copy from supposedly sassy film magazines like Entertainment Weekly: "George Lucas owns that weekend!" Few experiences beat the despair and ennui induced by critics talking like businessmen, trying to guess exactly how much money this movie is going to make. The Phantom Menace will turn us all into accountants.

In 1977, I was working at an usher at the Avco Center Cinema near UCLA, one of the theaters where the original Star Wars premiered. The Avco still stands today, a black-glass three-plex on Wilshire Boulevard, built at weird angles like Hill House. With interesting exceptions like Pumping Iron and Fellini's Casanova, the Avco did duty as a cinematic turkey farm.

Here are only some of the films I guided patrons into, forbidden by my oath as an usher to save them from what they were about to see: Demon Seed, Silver Streak, a vile rape-revenge movie called The Farmer, The Cassandra Crossing, The Domino Principle (not about pizza, alas). And on the basis of previews, I was sure that Star Wars was in this same grand tradition.

I was surprised that my fellow ushers were even mildly interested. I quit the theater two weeks before the movie opened, mostly because I wasn't getting enough shifts. I guess the Avco needed my help later on, having Wookie-fancying crowds out on the sidewalk 18 hours a day. What a delightful experience to see the theater manager, a dour crank with a look-alike pet bulldog, on TV begging anyone who was watching to come in and apply for a job.

It is true that few knew that Star Wars was going to become such a monster. The fans who lined up to watch a movie at 2am were moved by some inner signal. This signal wasn't triggered by the Internet or by advertising or by the lifestyle coverage that has soaked almost every periodical I've seen over the last two months.

The crowds that mobbed the streets constituted a spontaneous demonstration of a sort, a vote for special effects and happy endings, both of which weren't a part of most '70s films. The late night and early morning vigils on the street corner, necessary to get inside because of the crowds, were part of the era before video and wide-spread cable.

As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his memoir, Moving Places, "What still gave movies their magic and pungency [was] the slim likelihood that in most cases one would never see them again." A movie wasn't part of your furniture. You couldn't own a copy of a movie; you could, however, buy a little time in its presence. These current vigils are different--it's the difference between the Battle of Manassas and a convention of Civil War re-enactors.

This time, thanks to the previews, the toys and the media coverage, we know in advance almost everything worth knowing about The Phantom Menace. And those with longer memories will recall earlier vigil scenes for Jurassic Park and Batman and The Exorcist. It's not these orchestrated "spontaneous" crowds I mind, as much as the way this new Star Wars fever suggests that the defining quality of a generation is amnesia.

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A web-exclusive to the May 20-26, 1999 issue of Metro.

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