I saw a pack of Fruit Stripe gum in a random candy store last weekend and I was instantly transported back to the days when my clothing was always filthy from climbing trees and because I stabbed the Capri Sun package in the wrong place.
Sometimes I’d smell like fruit punch for weeks.
When I was a little girl, an artist friend of my parents painted a rainbow on my bedroom wall that I loved. I also had a round mirror framed by heavy yellow plastic that was the color of the mid-day sun. I remember that mirror perfectly – the shape of it and the size – but I don’t remember ever gazing into it. I slept in a twin bed back then and it was crammed with stuffed animals. There was my Cookie Monster, a bear I (for some reason) named Coca Cola, and my plush Chewbacca. I slept with them every single night and I vaguely recall how they would sometimes fall out of the bed and how that would cause me to wake up instantly. I only felt safe when I could feel them close and I used to keep two on one side of me and one on the other side of me like they were my very own furry Secret Service detail that worked for nothing and never wore wires in their ears.
I still have two of those dolls. Cookie lives in a closet in my house and Coca Cola resides in my mother’s basement, but I lost Chewbacca somewhere along the way – and I never really missed him. We’d shared a bond, sure, but other things just became more important for me to sleep with, like Carlin Ozzy, my Cabbage Patch Kid who wore a Member’s Only-style windbreaker, and eventually that guy with the scruff. Still, Chewbacca must have made some dent in my psyche because, so many decades later, I named my dog Wookie. At the time I chose the name, I had no idea that Chewbacca’s species was spelled with an extra E. I did it wrong, but I stand by my mistake; that additional vowel feels slightly ridiculous to me, though not as ridiculous as when the vet calls to confirm an appointment for “Wookie Kalter” and I shake my head and think, This must be why normal people name their dogs Sophie.
I can’t remember going to see Star Wars when it first came out. I was less than two years old then, but family folklore includes a sweet little tale about how I took one look at Darth Vader’s mask and cloak and heard just a single second of his labored breathing and I dove beneath the seat in the theatre utterly traumatized. I recollect not a second of this event and I therefore cannot be sure of its accuracy, but it makes sense. Darth Vader is fucking terrifying – and that’s even before he starts talking about shit like the Dark Side. Plus, from the very start of my exposure to movies, they impacted me so profoundly that I ended up making the exploration of how and why cinema resonates with us my career. But do I genuinely remember my first Star Wars experience? I do not.
I actually have very few memories involving the franchise, and the ones that are still solid are actually just random bits of information that settled in whatever location of my brain it is that holds the capacity for retrospect. I know, for instance, that my mother always liked C-3PO. She claims it’s because he’s polite, but the real reason is because he’s a neat freak. Even in a post-apocalyptic desert, she’s a woman who values cleanliness. I’m positive there was an R2-D2 action figure in our basement for a long time, but I don’t remember ever playing with him. My next door neighbor had a green light saber that made sounds and we’d carry it around, but it was less about light sabering; we used it as a makeshift baton and we were both terrible at twirling so we hit ourselves in the head with it constantly. I remember thinking Ewoks were really cute and, years later, wondering if they resembled George Lucas intentionally. I remember the lines that shifted the cultural landscape like, “Luke, I am your father.” I remember trying to wrap my long hair into Leia-style buns and recognizing that it’s just a terrible look on anyone.
But I don’t own even one Star Wars DVD. I have never used any of the films to teach Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey, even though Lucas himself has been open about the fact that he followed the formula intentionally in constructing his story. I’ve shown Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Stand By Me and, for the last bunch of years, I’ve used Almost Famous to explain heroic landmark moments like crossing a threshold and being trapped inside the belly of the whale. For me though, Star Wars was just confusing. The names of the planets often sounded like garbled nonsense to me, not names I was apparently meant to remember. And the backstory! It was all so overwrought and really hard to follow and, though I have always been drawn to stories about space, I could never fully embrace a space story that also took place on land because it’s the vast and stark darkness of space that enthralls me, not the mountainous landscape of some fictional planet.
Still, when The Phantom Menace was released, I was at the movie theatre that very weekend. I didn’t see it at midnight on opening night or anything, but I understood by then the historical significance of the series and I felt swept up in the kind of hype that might as well have been accompanied by falling glitter and I wanted to participate in the celebration. Besides, as a Film and Media teacher, to not see the first Star Wars movie released in over fifteen years might be grounds for dismissal from the entire profession. I kept my eye on the soaring box office totals because it’s often the business side of things that interest me, but I forgot about the already-staggering domestic gross the second the lights went dim and the familiar text scrolled across the screen. At that moment, I felt as excited as the guy who had slept outside the theatre in a small tent for a week prior to the release wearing Yoda Underoos. I had rising goosebumps. I smiled widely in the dark and saw other people grinning as well. This, I thought to myself right then, is history.
Unfortunately, my excitement, generated entirely by the familiarity of the studio scoring and the visual recollection of the ascending onscreen text, didn’t last. I hadn’t properly prepared. I didn’t rewatch all the prior films and I therefore had no idea of the significance of the characters or the events in the new film. Every now and again, I’d hear loud gasps or happy laughter coming from the corners of the theatre where the true fans sat together, but I didn’t understand what it was that formed those reactions. I felt a little like that girl who didn’t do the required reading for her Victorian Fiction class and then sat at a desk for an hour pretending to look interested and engaged by nodding when other people nodded and occasionally making superficial comments about stuff like poverty because, come on, it’s Victorian Fiction and economic divide is the most major theme besides rampant fucking misery. (By the way, I was that girl. And I wrote a twenty-page paper on Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend without reading half of the book and I got an A from my professor who had edited an edition of the text. Only part of me is proud of such a thing.)
Midway through The Phantom Menace, I mentally checked out. I realized that it was official: Hayden Christensen’s acting was more plastic than my old mirror frame and Jar Jar Binks was annoying as fuck and my newly-adult mind felt inundated with names and places that were just as indecipherable to me as they’d been when I was a toddler. I spent the last third of the movie imagining how nice it would be if the closet in my house was two stories and had a winding staircase and a skylight so I could distinguish perfectly between the clothing, bags, and shoes I own in various shades of black.
I didn’t even bother seeing the next two movies in the series and I was okay with the sporadic looks of horror I’d get in bars when that information came out. Besides, by then I had Wookie and I could say, “No, I don’t really love Star Wars. But I named my dog Wookie,” and everybody would laugh and all was instantly forgiven. Over the years I have found that telling a guy my dog’s name is akin to mentioning that I spend my summers fully naked while tapping an ever-present keg and watching Caddyshack on a loop. There’s something almost primal about the male sex and how, as adults, they embrace the very things they were transfixed by as children.
In spite of my Star Wars apathy, I liked to show my Wookie her namesake whenever he appeared on television. “That’s who you’re named after!” I would exclaim with excitement, but Wookie would just yawn and appear bored and turn in three circles before settling down for a nap. Over the years, I’ve been able to teach her a lot – like how to play fetch with a plush yellow rag that used to be a stuffed duck – but I never accomplished getting her interested in anything on television besides Yankee playoff games and political debates. It saddens me greatly that she is deaf now because I think she’d really enjoy watching Donald Trump pretend that he’s a viable candidate for office or for humankind in general.
When the information about a brand new trilogy was announced, my only real interest was in seeing how Disney would incorporate the Star Wars universe into the Disney stratosphere, but my enthusiasm for the new films themselves barely registered. The only thing that really made me smile was the certainty that all the men I know (and all the men I have known) would be deliriously happy hearing the news. Even if I’m not with some of those guys anymore and even if I’ve, you know, cast some spells here and there wishing them total and unrelenting impotence, I am able to still fondly recall all the times they talked almost lyrically about how much Han Solo once meant in their lives.
Speaking of Mr. Solo, a groundbreaking pronouncement was made that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill had signed on to reprise their iconic roles in the new film, the one that would be directed by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost. Even I got a little chill seeing some photos of all of them appearing on the set. I might not have remembered (or ever fully understood in the first place) the layers of their characters, but there was something undoubtedly special about their reemergence all these years later.
And that was that for me – until yesterday. See, yesterday is when I invited a close friend of mine to come in and teach all my classes a lesson about the marketing synergy done with the franchise. He is nothing if not an expert on all things Star Wars. A little bit older than me, he does not remember a time without Star Wars in his life and his capacity to recall details from all the films and the books and the cartoons is astounding. He even knows that Chewbacca had a child and that the kid’s name was Lumpy! Did you know that? Nor did I.
Last year, my friend jetted off to California to attend The Star Wars Experience, an event designed to gather the most rabid fans, toss them into an arena, and sell them more licensed merchandise than anyone ever believed could be created inside of a dank factory. Want a Boba Fett towel or a waffle maker that churns out Obi-Wan Kenobi-shaped waffles? Then you’d be in luck because apparently you can buy fucking anything your Lucas-formed mind has ever dreamed of. He texted me pictures the entire time he was there and I’m not gonna lie: I was pretty relieved to be able to officially confirm that he’s not the kind of fan who dresses up as a Sith Lord to sit in a theatre. The Star Wars Experience is held annually and every other year it takes place in the United States. He’d never been before, but after hearing that some footage from The Force Awakens would be screened and that the cast would be there, he decided to treat himself.
Looking at the pictures he sent me made me smile, though my reaction had nothing to do with the Star Wars of it all. Instead, what I loved was getting actual photographic evidence of a crowd of people who felt a burning passion for something and invested time and energy and money into a touchstone that brought them consistent joy. There was a unifying tie amongst the fans at the Experience, and I could actually see the delight radiating from their deep smiles and their grateful eyes. And maybe that’s what moved me, that level of gratitude. They were so proud to be there, to be experts on the franchise, to be surrounded kindred spirits. The closest I’ve personally gotten to that sense of fan community has been at Springsteen concerts, a place where everyone who knows what’s up raises their fists at specific times like we all got together the night before to practice. We know when he’s going to head to the back of the stage during Out in the Street and when to yell out a “whoo!” during that one point in Glory Days. My heady experiences at Bruce shows have always been the closest I’ve come to anything resembling a religious experience and I know what that rush of excitement feels like entering my body, how I almost feel nervous just before he comes on stage for no good reason at all and how I cry at least three times while I’m in the stadium in a way that is maybe more cleansing than any other kind of cry.
While my friend was in California, I kept seeing breathless updates on Entertainment Weekly’s site about the reactions to the longer teaser screened, but I never once watched it. It was more about sheer apathy than anything else. I just kept thinking I’d watch it later. Life got in the way – well, life and Vanderpump Rules – and I didn’t actually watch the teaser until yesterday when he taught my classes about how Star Wars advertising is pervasive and saturates the marketplace and has done so for their entire lives. This guy is an amazing teacher, and I don’t say such a thing cavalierly because to be an amazing teacher is amazingly hard. He is engaging and funny and quick with a clever retort. He connects with the students and moves fluidly around the room to command his space. His tone fluctuates from knowledgeable to sarcastic to enthralled to questioning and watching him for an entire class period felt like getting on a really fast train and riding it through winding tunnels before ending up at a station where I was met by a gorgeous man who insisted that I eat a pound of decadent dark chocolate truffles upon my arrival.
He went through the history of marketing Star Wars and explained how nobody at the studio initially believed the film would be a financial or critical success. He showed my students action figures and explained how the word “Ewok” is never once mentioned in a movie but people found out the name because it was printed on the back of the toy’s packaging. And then he showed the teaser played at the convention that was shot by an audience member and he asked that my students concentrate primarily on two things: the words that were continuously reiterated by the film’s producer and director and the elements of the teaser that elicited the greatest reactions from the crowd.
I leaned against the windowsill in my classroom in the dark and watched J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy thank the crowd over and over again for their unwavering support and for their undying fervor and then the teaser began. Simply the insignia for Lucas Films emblazoned across the screen received a gigantic roar from the crowd, but it was nothing compared to the screams that came next. There was a slow pan across what looked like one of those desert planets whose name I can’t pronounce and then there it was, crashed majestically against the landscape: The Millennium Falcon. The slow zoom in to Darth Vader’s mangled mask sent the volume in the arena up again, as did the flying sequences that looked insanely action-packed and cutting edge. I’m going to venture that for many people at the convention, watching that footage in that environment probably teetered on the precipice of the Top 10 moments of their lives, but the very last shot pushed that fucker clear over the edge and maybe knocked losing one’s virginity on prom night next to a maple tree off many lists. The screen went black for a moment. Then, softly, a single sentence was uttered in that darkness. “Chewie,” a male voice said – and then the image faded onto the screen and there they were, Han Solo and Chewbacca, standing together in their full glory. “We’re home.”
The cheers accompanying that moment were riotous and brimming with a crazy cocktail of deliriousness, appreciation, and awe. The sound was thundering – deafening. I’m not sure I have ever heard applause so loud, long, or spontaneous. That image and the specific line of dialogue paired with it opened something up in the people in that room.
What I didn’t expect is that it would end up cracking me open too.
I watched the teaser five times during school because I sat in on all of his presentations. Each time, I got choked up and soft tears fell from the corners of my eyes. (By the way, the Dior mascara that claims to be waterproof is not.) A swelling was taking place inside of my heart and the impact of it all stunned me. Sure, when it comes to movies, I’ve always been a really easy cry, but this? It felt different. This release felt so pure and organic that I felt seismically altered for more than just a moment.
It would probably be lovely to be able to experience a feeling and not feel the need to investigate the genesis of what elements in my life created that feeling, but it would also be nice to be taller. Sadly, neither is the case for me so I came home and called my mother in the hopes that her memory would allow me to decipher why my reaction to seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca knocked me sideways, to understand why that one line he spoke clenched my emotions so profoundly. She answered her phone in a rushed hush.
"Tuffy, I'm at a political function," she whispered.
"Can I just ask you a quick question?" I implored.
"Sure," she responded.
"When I was little and I got the Chewbacca stuffed animal, did I specifically ask for it or did you just buy him for me?"
(Quick aside: at this point, nobody in my family even blanches when I come out with a random question like that.)
"I just bought him for you," she said after thinking for a moment.
"But why him?" I asked.
"You pointed at him in the store," she explained.
I hung up with her and called my sister next. Leigh has a better memory of that time than I do. Plus, she has kept a shitload of stuff from her youth. She still has her Holly Hobbie doll, the Fisher Price cruise ship, and at least three Weebles while I foolishly tossed all of my Weebles away long ago.
"Hey," I said. "Weird question: do you know why I liked Chewbacca when I was little?"
"Because he was furry and he made a funny noise," she said instantly.
"That's it?" I asked.
"I think so," she responded. And then she told me that story of how I hid on the sticky theatre floor during the movie and that my dad kept telling her to pick me up but she was scared of the movie too so she was afraid to move. She also reminded me that she'd met Darth Vader when he made an appearance at the mall and I didn’t remember that but I know that it’s true because she’s got evidence. In her basement she has framed photographs on the wall of Fonzie, Shaun Cassidy, and Darth Vader. They're all autographed. The one from Darth Vader reads, "I'll be back. Best Wishes, Darth Vader."
"Do you remember when we saw the double feature of Urban Cowboy and Grease at the drive-in?" she asked.
"That's actually one of my earliest memories," I responded with a smile. It is, too. I remember standing in my kitchen that evening in my feety pajamas as we got ready to go to the movies. My parents figured we’d fall asleep at some point during the night so they suggested we just wear our pajamas. You could do things like that in those more innocent drive-in days.
"Do you remember how Daddy complained the entire time about how much he hated John Travolta and called him 'John Revolting'?" she inquired.
"No, but I remember that we ate popcorn out of brown paper bags and that I thought it was weird that they showed Urban Cowboy first because the kids would want to see Grease and it was nighttime and they might fall asleep before their movie came on. Even at four, I remember thinking that was a bizarre scheduling choice."
It's funny the different things people can recall about the same experience. It's funnier still what those specific recollections might say about who we are.
I told her then about the Star Wars teaser and my reaction to it and she ventured that maybe Wookie has made me feel more connected with Chewbacca. It was a good point, one I'd thought of too.
"But I don't think that's the whole reason," I said.
It's been over twenty-four hours now and I've watched that teaser about twenty times. I also watched a YouTube video that showed fan reactions and every single person either cried or cheered at the moment that wrecked me too. Part of it is undoubtedly the teaser’s construction, the way there’s a slow build to the big reveal in a strategic manner that shows other snippets of visuals that are guaranteed to be meaningful along the way. And the score and voiceover are used perfectly, the melody ratcheting up our emotions in a way that could probably be measured by the scientists I want to believe reside at Skywalker Ranch.
But what really caused the magnitude of my reaction – of everybody’s reaction – is the staggering power of nostalgia. It’s intangible in a lot of ways like emotions often are, but then again, it was also right there in human and Wookiee form reflecting off that movie screen. The feelings conjured up by nostalgia flow swiftly and they often catch us by surprise. Nostalgia brings about wistfulness and warmth. In many ways, it brings us home.
By no means was the impact of the Han Solo/Chewbacca moment simply due to their appearance, though I’m pleased to report that Harrison Ford looks fantastic and Chewbacca’s fur doesn’t seem to have matted in the slightest. It was instead the combination of the surprise of the reveal and the line, “Chewie, we’re home.” It was said with pride and with relief and Chewie roared his Wookiee approval and it swept anyone who had seen Star Wars as a child into the center of an emotional tsunami that eventually plopped all of us down on shag carpets in shades of avocado and goldenrod and rust. We symbolically landed beside a stack of records and a mound of pillows we’d just used to build a fort. For me personally, I was hurdled to a home where my father is still alive and sitting on the couch doing The New York Times crossword puzzle in pen. It’s a home where my mother’s hair is brown and she is simultaneously studying for the exams in her Master’s program and making zucchini bread with the zucchinis that come from our garden. It’s a home where my sister lets me play with her in the den. It’s a home where there hasn’t been a divorce or a death, a place where we haven’t hurt each other yet. It’s a place I don’t fully remember, but I fill in the blank spaces with feelings that are generated by blips of memory. It’s fragmented, that memory; and in my mind, it almost plays like a trailer. Only the highlights appear. It’s scored by side one of Darkness on the Edge of Town. And I think it is that realization – how I miss what it is that I can remember but I miss even more that which I try not to allow myself to remember – that maybe explains why a line spoken by a fictional character settled in so deeply.
Maybe it explains how it is that Chewie brought me home.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.