Would we be forced to scalp two tickets to the hottest show in town? Where were the Star Wars freaks? Where were the people who were willing to see the movie at THE theatre, on the first night, where all the freaks with light-sabers and Darth Vader costumes would be? Alas, all gone?
So then I left a message for Adam, offering him a ticket. To my amazement -- given our relapse in communication over the last two weeks -- he returned the call and said he would be glad to go. Hurdle one eliminated. I spent much of Tuesday afternoon -- in between reading and covering screenplays -- coordinating the final battle plan with Adam and Josh over the phone. Adam said he had another friend, a co-worker named Erica, who wanted to go as well, but she would join us in line at about 2:30 A.M.
Josh, Adam and I settled on meeting at Josh's place at 10:00 P.M., then going over to Hollywood and getting a feel for the line. I attempted to get a nap in the evening, but was unable to sleep, and passed the time watching TV. My mounting anticipation was alloyed by so many other emotions. Foreboding that the film would suck. Fear that the old magic would be gone. Fear that the midnight showing would be the only cool screening, and the 3:30 would end up being half-empty. And the final question: aren't I too old for this? Don't I already know Phantom Menace probably won't be as good as Election, to name just one recent film? And over all these fears loomed the spectre of Jar Jar Binks. But that's already a Star Wars geek cliche.
I picked up Adam at Starbucks near his home at 9:30 P.M. That in itself was an episode-within-an-episode, seeing as how I hadn't seen him in almost a year. We quickly settled into an easy conversation mode, and as I drove toward Josh's apartment, we caught up on old times, mutual friends, current fencers, and so on. If tonight would serve no other purpose, it would at least solidify the renewing of my friendship with Adam.
We arrived at Josh's apartment. I parked; we buzzed Josh, and he came out. The plan was for him to drive us all, since he works in a building near the Mann's Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard, and could get into the parking garage for free. Exiting the garage, Josh's back door got caught in the opening garage-gate (don't ask), but soon we were on our way. To Hollywood. To the Mann's Chinese. To the culmination of 16 years of waiting...
After parking, we walked the few blocks to the theater, which was lit up, its marquees proudly displaying the "Star Wasr Episode One the Phantom Menace" banner. The facade of the theater was brightly lit, and there were numerous media vans parked nearby, including one from the Sci-Fi channel and various local news stations. I saw at least one reporter doing a stand-up in front of the boulevard.
But what of the line itself? There was something underwhelming about it, on first sight. Rather than a miniature city of rabid Star Wars fans, a sprawling quasi-Kosovo of tents and staged light-saber battles, all we saw was an orderly and rather small line which turned the corner around the theater and stretched perhaps only a block and a half beyond. There were some signs ("Jesus is the Force," said one), but there was still something rather subdued about the whole affair. I remembered a longer line for the "X-Files" movie. We ascertained that this line was for the 12:00 showing, which had not yet let in. Where were the 3:30 people? Apparently nowhere. No line at all, yet. My fears grew yet stronger: what if Josh, Adam, Erica and I were the only people freakish enough to even go to the 3:30 showing? What if the joke were on us?
Deciding we had plenty of time to get in line, we hopped across the street to catch dinner at "Hamburger Hamlet." This particular "Hamburger Hamlet" has the distinction of a large Indiana Jones mural on the back wall, contributing to the whole "Hollywood" feel. We ordered and settled in, though I was leery of drinking my soda, wondering if bathroom facilities would become a problem (of which more later).
From our vantage at the window-seat of the Hamburger Hamlet, which looked out directly upon the Mann Chinese across the street, we could see things beginning to heat up. We saw at least two Darth Mauls in full red make-up wielding red light sabers. One of the Mauls was particularly scary; he had aluminum foil wrapped around his Sabre and wore a seriously pissed-off expression.
Suddenly, a coterie of Star Trek fans began marching back and forth in front of the theater, waving signs saying "Kirk not Kenobi," "Wars is Hell," "Kirk never kissed his sister," "Spock 3:16," "Yoda is a puppet of the government," and the like. Things began to tense up between Trekkers and Star Wars fans and the few LAPD officers posted on the Boulevard seemed about ready to pull their night-sticks and do some Rodney Kinging. But alas, our hopes of a full-scale riot never materialized. Adam ran outside and took several photos of the Star Trek picketers. Later on, Josh and I found the "Kirk never kissed his sister" sign and grabbed it. I took it home -- a souvenir.
We ate our meals. By the time we had finished, it was past 11:00 and the line for the midnight showing was gone, having been let into the theater. To our chagrin we saw that a sizeable line for the 3:30 showing -- already three deep and extending a block beyond the corner -- had appeared seemingly out of thin air. We paid our check, hurried across the street and took our places in line.
Thus began The Wait -- four hours which cannot equal Harry Knowles' multi-day odyssey, but which nonetheless had a quasi-epic quality. As the line began to build behind us, more and more people queuing up, my fears were calmed: maybe this show wouldn't sell out, but it would be plenty crowded. And more and more light sabers were becoming visible among those in line. I felt vindicated: there were enough freaks left over that the 3:30 showing would be quite an experience.
How did those four hours pass? Josh made regular trips to the building where he worked, bringing one of us each time to go to the bathroom inside (by the end of it, the security guard was getting pretty pissed off). I waited for over a half an hour alone while Josh and Adam -- whose insides had been done a number by the cheeseburger he'd ordered -- went on one such sojourn. Meantime what did we see? We saw a scary man standing in the middle of the road wearing only a trenchcoat and a Darth Vader mask. He did not appear to be standing in line. Adam and I were convinced he would pull out an Uzi and spray the crowds. Moments later he was gone -- vanished? Shortly afterward a full-scale Darth Vader came, wearing the complete mask, costume (replete with blinking chest-plate) and with the inevitable red light saber. Many from the line -- including Adam -- snapped photos of him, and he gladly posed, soaking in the attention like Julia Roberts at a premiere. In addition to the two (or rather one and a half) Vaders, and the two or three Darth Mauls, I saw one Obi Wan Kenobi, perhaps a dozen light sabers, and a three-year-old in a Biker Scout helmet.
So it went. The time passed, and not too slowly. Along the way I bumped into Scott Bly, a former fellow USC student whom I'd fallen out of touch with. He gave me his card. I guess at least one such meeting was inevitable. Erica showed up at 2:00; a moderately cute blond girl who strikes me as just the sort of woman Adam always seems to be befriending. We sat on the pavement. Josh and I passed the time asking Star Wars trivia questions to each other. At first our tone of voice was ironic, but soon we were seriously trying to stump each other. "What docking bay is the Millenium Falcon in at Mos Eisley?" "What cell-block is Princess Leia held in?" "What is the name of the General who gives the briefing in Return of the Jedi?"
At last the line began to move. Some cheered. There was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. We moved forward, a little at a time. It seemed they were letting the people in by sections rather than all at once. We formulated a plan: we would split into two groups, Josh and I, and Adam and Erica. Each group would try to find 4 seats. Whoever succeeded would contact the other group and we would take our seats.
An attendee stood to check our tickets outside the building. Suddenly Josh couldn't find his. While I nearly had a heart attack, he emptied his pockets in a desperate search for the elusive paper square. At last he found it. We moved on. In a daze, we gave our tickets to the ticket takers. We ran -- ran -- into the auditorium. It had begun.
My impression of that yawning cavelike interior of the Mann's Chinese is first of all of red -- lush plush red, the seats, the carpets, everything. Already most of the middle seats were gone. Josh and I ran to about the fifth row and grabbed four seats. Josh went to get Adam and Erica. We then changed our minds and found four seats a couple of rows further back. Not bad seats at all -- toward the center, toward the front.
By now there was an undeniable electricity in the air. The only thing I can compare it to is a rock concert -- there was that level of energy in the crowd. I saw a Darth Maul a few rows down and over. In front of the yet-blank screen stood perhaps a dozen people with cameras, taking pictures of the audience. Josh, Adam and Erica went back out to get popcorn and drinks while I held on to the seats. Two guys came out front and started a chant: one side of the theater would scream, "Star!" then the other side would scream "Wars!" The chant fizzled at first, then caught on. I joined in. "Star!" "Wars!" "Star!" "Wars!" Then a guy ran to the front brandishing a large banner of Jar Jar and tried to start a chant of "Jar Jar Binks! Jar Jar Binks!" This chant didn't take, though it elicited plenty of laughter. There were some, apparently, who had already decided they were going to love hating Jar-Jar more than they would hate him.
Adam, Josh and Erica took their seats burdened with popcorn. The lights dimmed. Ear-splitting cheers. I screamed. I whooped. I clapped till my hands stung. The din was deafening. This was it. The climax of 16 years' waiting. My fears about the 3:30 showing had been unfounded: though not perhaps sold out, the show was almost full, and the freaks were out in force. Legions of light sabers danced among the anonymous rows. All was well.
The previews began, and were almost totally drowned out by screaming. There was "Anna and the King." (Some people clapped for Chow Yun Fat). There was "Titan AE". (negative reaction). There was "The General's Daughter" (very negative reaction). And there was "The Beach," which elicited an onslaught of anti-Leonardo sentiment. People were screaming things like "Fuck you faggot asshole" to the large Leo looming on the screen. Adam leaned over and said to me, "You don't need to be Deanna Troi to sense hostility here."
Up came the sound-system promos. The THX one was the same old one, where the thing breaks down and the little robot flies around fixing it. One audience member screamed, "Hurry up and fix it!"
When the Lucasfilm logo went up, the screams (including mine) were so loud that nothing else could possibly be heard. As loud as they were, their volume seemed to double when those magical words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away..." came onto the screen. I screamed myself hoarse. I waved my arms around. The theater was lost in noise. The climax came with the trumpet fanfare, the bold untarnished "Star Wars" logo like an emblem of youth, and the beginning of the title credits streaming back into the distance. Our screams were so loud that we couldn't even hear the music, but in all our minds' ears it was present.
When the film itself began, it was amazing how quickly the crowd quieted down. These were, after all, Star Wars fans, and they didn't want to miss a line of dialogue. I found my brain playing catch-up with my eyes. There was a kind of afterglow in the early minutes of the film -- a sense of unreality. Could we really be watching a NEW "Star Wars" movie? Could it really be? It was.
Of the film itself I will say little until I know that you've seen it. All I will say at this point is that nothing could possibly have lived up to our enthusiasm in those first seconds, and so the climax of the night was when the words "Star Wars" first appeared. I have now seen "Phantom Menace" twice (in the space of about 15 hours). My adult critical sense says certain things, my inner child says others. It's hard to assimilate the experience of watching it -- the mind reacts on more than one level, and not without contradictions. After extensive post-movie discussion with Josh, Adam and Rob (with whom I saw it for the second time) I'm still unraveling my overall opinion of the movie.
What I will say is this: I'm glad I went to that freaky 3:30 AM showing at the Mann Chinese. For perhaps fifteen minutes, as the film started rolling, I was a child again. It's a cliche, of course, but there really isn't any other way to describe it. And I'm not sure any cultural cue, any movie or song or TV show, could achieve the same thing in me, or in the others of our generation who feel the same way. I'm grateful for having been able to experience it again, even if only briefly. Was it a transcendent experience of cultural unity? Probably not. But it was a moment when one became the crowd, when one felt larger than oneself, and thus was a pretty exhilarating 15 minutes, independent of what qualities the film itself may or may not have. Mind you, I have many thoughts on the film. But that is another story...