By Mark Bell | October 8, 2014

I often complain about the dearth of cinematic activity here in Northern California. While we have many great movie theaters and a few very cool film festivals, I feel extremely jealous of people who live in Austin, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Portland, OR who between them get cinematic events worthy of a fever jealousy at least once a week. However, I can always brag (to myself anyways) that I live near Skywalker Ranch, Rancho Obi-Wan and the whole area north of the Golden Gate Bridge where all the early “Star Wars” and ILM excitement began and mostly still resides. Don’t get me started on San Francisco’s failure to keep the George Lucas museum. The point is, anyone who’s ever seen or read a “Making Of…” book about the “Star Wars” films knows Marin County.

While I’m definitely not one of those insanely obsessive “Star Wars” fans, I know where my movie love began and it was in a galaxy far, far away. As a little kid in a huge, loud, crowded single screen movie theater seeing the original trilogy unspool before my eyes at maybe 9 years old, without having any inkling what might happen next, it begat a love for movies that has sustained me till this day. However these days huge blockbuster films seem to be the syrupy, lukewarm bottom of the sundae with the PR and gossip sites shredding any sense of surprise making up the hot fudge and ice cream. Yet these are all topics for another blog or some kind of podcast rant. I’m writing today about seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week on a gorgeous, humongous single screen in an 800 capacity theater. It brought me back to the days of my youth which is what all the best blockbusters should achieve every summer.

The Mill Valley Film Festival, now in it’s 37th(!) year, always does a nice job mixing in some classic George Lucas films into their prestigious program, and for good reason. All Lucas’ best and most indelible films were thought up and partially created in Marin County where the original ILM was and where the glorious Skywalker Ranch still sits. A few years back the MVFF showed “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at the Century Cinemas Theater in Corte Madera which, for my money, might be the best movie theater for picture and sound I’ve ever been to. It’s an old school, no frills single-screen with surround sound so loud and well tuned I frequently have to look behind me during films due to sounds you just can’t hear in THX equipped multiplexes. Thus, the screening of “The Empire Strikes Back” was as awesome as I had hoped it would be.

Seeing the film in a crowded, warm theater evoked memories of having to go with a parent to see the film as a youth. While I definitely never try to stumble too far into nostalgia, I think where most geeky cinephiles fall short in their love/hate relationship with the “Star Wars” films is that their nostalgia for pretty decent films (not “great!”) bites them due to unrealistic expectations. A huge reason beloved films don’t live up their modern day expectations is that the geeks themselves are now the adults. Or, man-children at least. They’re either forcing their love of the “Star Wars” films onto kids (who in this day and age honestly are only excited because their parents/uncle/grandpa is excited) and are falling short of that initial buzz or they’re missing the fact that the best part of seeing the original “Star Wars” films when they came out was because it was special. It was an event. You got to go with a parent and either stay up late or even miss school. The internet coupled with DVD’s and 24/7 cable has ruined the specialness of blockbusters forever.

Yet the Mill Valley Film Festival tries to make the Lucas films they show a mini-event and the effort is very much appreciated. This weeks showing featured a bevy of local “Star Wars” cosplay folk dressed as Leia, Darth Vader as well as various Empire Commanders and Stormtroopers posing for hpotos and marching around the theater inside and out. The fest also brought out the always engaging David H. Tanaka, a visual effects stalwart who got his start in the original “Star Wars” film and has an IMDB page worthy of all sorts of “oooohs” and ahhhhs” to shepherd the event. Tanaka then welcomed Lorne Peterson who was (and is) a model builder for ILM from it’s inception through today.

Lorne Peterson and David Tanaka talking about the model making in Empire.

Lorne Peterson and David Tanaka talking about the model making in Empire.

The two chatted about the obstacles they had to overcome creating visuals never seen before and the audience was treated to fun slides accompanied by behind-the-scenes stories from the two men who were in the trenches. After a short but intense trivia session, the crowd settled in for inarguably the best “Star Wars” film of them all, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Because I haven’t really sat and watched the film in a good 15+ years, I was sort of surprised how well it still works. Sure, there’s some weird pacing and plot issues but damn, there has never been a darker, more dramatic set-up in the history of cinema than “The Empire Strikes Back.” While the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” films tried to tee up their own cliff-hangers, no one did it better than “The Empire Strikes Back.” Plus, if you read the books those films are based on, there were no surprises except in execution. “The Empire Strikes Back” was thought out by George Lucas, scripted by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan and brought to life by director Irving Kershner. No books or lore to guide the way, no corporation to answer to. Just pure creativity from mind to screen.

As I sat and enjoyed the film, remembering moments in it long forgotten, I kind of couldn’t believe the way the film slowly tips it’s hand to the dark fate set to befall our beloved heroes. With the internet chomping at the bit to ruin any and every surprise in a film, often times years before it even premieres, I felt an odd jealousy at 9-year old me who had no idea what was about to happen onscreen. And I loved revisiting that sense of the unknown. The experience as a whole was truly wonderful and it felt like a respite from the onslaught of the internet in terms of film. If anyone knows how to be a movie fan in 2014 and maintain that childish sense of wonder, please let me know. As for the Mill Valley Film Festival, thanks for taking us back if even for just a few hours.

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