The second film in the original Star Wars trilogy - The Empire Strikes Back - was released 30 years ago this week. The first time I saw it was 24 years ago, on my girlfriend's VCR.
I'd seen the original Star Wars (none of your A New Hope crap, please... the movie's name was Star Wars) and the third episode, Return of the Jedi in the theaters, but hadn't seen Empire Strikes Back when it was out, due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances. By the time it came to second-run theaters, circumstances were still unfortunate, so I missed it entirely.
Of course, the salient plot points and the big revelation, that Darth Vader was Luke's father, quickly leaked out. It all passed into knowledge so common that Johnny Carson was making jokes about it on the Tonight Show. Still, a lot of what happens in Return of the Jedi makes very little sense without having seen Empire Strikes Back.
With the invention of the VCR, I might have had a chance to see it, but anytime I suggested it as a rental, the idea was shot down, as everyone around me had already seen it 893,402 times. After a few years, it slipped down on the priority list of things to do. It wasn't until 1986 that I had a solid chance to see it, and in full context, when my girlfriend suggested we rent and watch the whole trilogy. Her parents were going out of town for that Friday night, so it was perfect occasion for a long evening watching movies.
It had been a long time since she had seen Star Wars in the theater (and she'd only seen it the one time), so we watched the tape and enjoyed the first movie. When it finished, we made some more popcorn while the tape was rewinding, and then started in on Empire Strikes Back. I was quietly thrilled that I'd finally get a chance to see it, and fill in the gaps in my comprehension of the story.
However, in contrast to Star Wars, my girlfriend had seen Empire Strikes Back more recently in the theater, and had seen it at least 20 times when it was out. I don't know why I was surprised by what happened next, but I was. Shortly into the movie, she started to hint, gently at first, then with increasing vigor that she had an alternative suggestion for how we might occupy ourselves that Friday night, alone together in her house.
here begins a tale of woe and heartbreak.
The term "geek cred" had not been coined in 1986, nor was there much value in the concept behind it, viz. that there is nobility in a devotion to sci-tech esoterica that supersedes all concerns of conventional society. As the intricacies of subcultural memes were unrecognized at the time, what happened next was an expression of the values of a more straightforward, if less forgiving age.
Which is to say that a healthy 17-year-old male who tells his healthy 18-year-old girlfriend, however diplomatically, that he'd really rather watch Empire Strikes Back on said girlfriend's TV than neck and screw with said girlfriend's semi-naked body is just asking for an ex-girlfriend.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. I have been accused of being many things: arrogant, foolish, opinionated, and much, much worse. However, no one has ever had occasion to call me stupid. To make a long story short, I turned off the TV myself, to focus on more immediate matters. When I left to go home, I took the tape she'd rented, with promises to take it back to the video rental place the next day. (We never did get around to watching Return of the Jedi.)
After a few hours sleep, I watched Empire Strikes Back alone at my house before I had to go to work. Gaps in my knowledge complete, I returned the tape.
So, happy 24th Anniversary, Empire Strikes Back! You still make very little sense to me, and I can never watch you without feeling like I should turn you off just as the Millennium Falcon enters the asteroid field.
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