What Star Wars Means to Me: How I Learned to Read Subtitles

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My first association with Star Wars is nearsightedness. I came to it a little bit late; I’ve never been a big movie person, and I was probably too young to see the original movie when it came out. By the spring of 1978, though, I’d heard so much about it–through my schoolmates, but also thanks to my obsession with Pizzazz magazine–that I really had to see it, and it was still playing at one of the local mall theaters. So my dad took me to it (it might have been my first PG-rated movie). During the cantina scene, I whispered to him that I couldn’t read the subtitles. He handed me his glasses; all of a sudden I could read them. That’s how I found out I needed glasses.

Maybe that soured me on Star Wars a little–and by “soured,” I mean that I’ve still watched and read an awful lot of Star Wars stuff, just less than most people in my subculture. I’ve watched Empire and Return once apiece, when they were released; I didn’t see Episodes 1 or 2, and only saw Episode 3 because I was with a big group of friends who’d bought a block of 50 tickets and invited me along. (Their response afterwards: “That sucked!” “Yeah! Let’s go watch Episode 4 so we can like Star Wars again!” “I’ve got the original laserdisc! Han shoots first!” “Yeah! Let’s go!”) I did sit through the entire Holiday Special, though, mostly because I’m related to one of its cast members. And I like some of the Star Wars comics plenty, especially the totally perverse, Jim Woodring-written Jabba the Hutt miniseries.

What really opened my eyes to the value of Star Wars, though, was watching the original movie again with my friends an hour or so after Episode 3. I hadn’t seen it in close to 25 years; it was maybe the fourth time I’d ever watched the whole thing. But I knew the entire damn movie, line for line and shot for shot, and so did everyone else in the room. It’s the closest thing our culture now has to a source that we can assume is universally familiar. People can’t offhandedly allude to the Bible or Milton or Shakespeare any more with certainty that everyone’s going to know what we’re talking about, but everybody instantly understands “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or “you’re my only hope” or “less than twelve parsecs” or “a great disturbance in the Force” or “let the Wookiee win” or “open the blast doors.” It’s our language, our touchstone, our secular holy text (and no wonder we get so upset when George Lucas tries to revise it). Star Wars is so central to the geek community that it’s hard to even have an opinion on: it’s simply there, a pillar in the center of geek culture, shining like a lightsaber in the dark.