Nothing Inside the Box (1999)

Mark and Brandon are dancing around the parking lot of the Kalamazoo 10 movie theaters. They’ve got all four car doors open, flanking this huge, cream-colored Grand Marquis; stickers are plastered over the back windshield, and they’re kicking up their bare shins at the ska that’s pumping out of the car stereo. They’re art students at the community college, they’re pleased to meet me, and now they grab Rachel and start jumping around on the sidewalk.

Here’s where the kid with the video camera finds them. He’s been walking around, from tent to tent, and he can’t believe his luck. “This is great,” he enthuses, as he squints at Mark and Brandon through his lens, flashes a crooked smile. “I gotta immortalize this whole thing on tape.” But this is not actually a dramatic event that he’s capturing. It’s not the fictional dramatic event, nor is it the line to buy tickets to the fictional dramatic event. No, right now, this is two kids dancing in a parking lot.

I pose, too, crouching on the lawn, huddled around someone’s cardboard sign, smiling. We’ve gone to check out the scene, for this is history, we say, and I start asking questions as if I were a real journalist: So how long have you been out here? How many times have you seen the trilogy? And then frantically scribble these numbers down as if they’re somehow meaningful in themselves. All of us here are excited in some way. I’m ecstatic that I’ve got some material.

35 screenings on May 19, I scrawl, and about 300 in line when tickets are finally sold. Less than ten are black, I note, roughly a quarter female. The sign reads maximum twelve tickets per person. Seven televisions set up, including two showing the original movie, one playing Spaceballs, the 1987 spoof, and two hooked up to video game systems. Three separate Trivial Pursuit games running simultaneously at 2 a.m. Eight tents. This is all dutifully collected, recorded, notes like facts about the movie itself. Things we can tell others, know ourselves.

I don’t ask about the full quart of skim milk on the hood of their car. It’s gone when I return the next day, but I bet it’s somewhere on film, nicely preserved.  

***

They say, “I’m not really a hardcore fan. I just like the movie. If I couldn’t see it on the 19th, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.” But then they panic: “Dude, you don’t have a ticket? You’re out here, and you’re not going to see it opening day—what the fuck?” Heads turn, people get nervous; they want nothing more than for me to have a ticket, like everyone else. I look down. You’ve been up all night, I say; you already have lost sleep, I point out.

***

Almost immediately, I go check out the first person in line. He’s got a lawn chair, a blanket, and a baking tray of cookies decorated and shaped like Darth Maul, the movie’s flashy villain. Someone tells me he’s been out here since 9 p.m. Monday night. Right now it’s just past midnight, already a little into Wednesday. But what’s most surprising is that he looks so normal.  Of course I expect the fat guys spreading their role-playing games across card tables; there’s that weird bald dude with the black vest, Animaniacs umbrella, and pink sunglasses. As for this man, he’s got neatly coiffed hair, a powder blue IBM sweatshirt and Levi’s; he seems like he could be any old K-Mart shopper, a nameless, faceless 33-year-old corporate drone. I strike up a chat. I want to know what it is about this movie that’s got him, above everyone else in Kalamazoo, so psyched.

“I grew up with Star Wars,” he says, “saw it in fifth grade when it first came out.” Traces of nostalgia in the twinkle of his eyes. But it’s more than that. He’s got two young children, he explains, and by now, they know the trilogy better than he does. They deserve to see Star Wars on the big screen, just like daddy did. And they definitely need to see it on opening day. “Some parents pull their kids out of school for family vacations … I … Well, I know it’s a movie, but it’s a big deal.” I see him in the front row of the theater, popcorn in his lap, daughter on his right side, son on his left. Blue glow enveloping the whole family. The myth transmitted to future generations. I have to admit, it’s sort of touching.

When I come by to see him before I leave for the night, the man’s head has rolled back, he’s snoring, a paperback book is left open on his chest. These are the things a father will do.

***

The kid’s incredulous: “Once I camped out for a Tori Amos show in Detroit, but this shit’s probably happening at every theater in the fucking nation!”  I start thinking about these endless lines, stretched out across California in the middle of the night, where every other guy’s got a light saber, a Wookiee suit. I think about the stories these people could tell.

***

I’ve got to keep Peter Zillmann company; he’s agreed to buy my ticket when I finally decide I need one. The point of the movie, Peter says, gnawing on the muffin I’ve brought for him, is that it’s the only secular mythology Americans have. This is something we want to believe in, we want to worship. The point of the line, Peter says, is that we all get to feel like big assholes together. We know that none of us really has a life.

“I’d feel like a shithead for watching the trailer on the Internet so many times,” he adds, “if I didn’t actually go see it right away.”

I now understand why it was such a big deal that I didn’t have a ticket. I’m pretty sure I watched it on TV when I was nine or so, and I think I saw the sequels at a friend’s house. I remember the theme music, the light sabers, the droids, the galaxy far, far away. I even owned the Ewok Adventure board game. But that could’ve been any child of the eighties. I can’t rattle off, like some friends of mine, the precise moment when the guy who played Cliff on Cheers makes a two-second cameo, or how the song in the cantina goes, or where Yoda came from, or even, for chrissakes, basic plot points. All I know is that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and somehow Alec Guinness is involved. That was enough, I thought. I wasn’t prepared for encounters like these.

On Wednesday afternoon, Peter is beached under an umbrella, trying to catch some Z’s. He and his line companion Beckie were arguing on and off all night, he tells me. “One minute, we’re best of friends, the next, she’s saying she doesn’t want to see me ever again. It was surreal,” he says. Overnight, the line ebbs and flows, gets up, sits down, gets incredibly excited, becomes bored by the wait. Simultaneous stillness and motion. Everyone’s head hurts in the morning.

***

They know that this is part of it, not just the way Natalie Portman’s costume will look on the big screen, what new secrets of the universe George Lucas will reveal, but this, too, a week before the reels are even fed into the projectors: Curling up in your sleeping bag, grilling burgers for the hungry fans, shuffling your sci-fi collectors’ cards long into the night, through rain and lightning, and yawning as you get off your ass the next day to stand in single file. This is part of the package.

But then sometimes it feels like there’s nothing inside the box at all. Sometime a few hours after midnight, as the crushed pizza boxes and broken donuts start cluttering the landscape, and the street hockey game, this swarm of shirtless men on skates, gets noisier and sweatier, the idea that we are waiting, that this is for something, momentarily slips away. This is the event, this is the spectacle. And the Channel 3 news van suddenly swings into the lot, and the cops grin as they make another spin around the building. The words Episode One, Tickets on Sale loom above the scene, announcing the revelry below. This can’t be just part of an event if we are actually on the marquee. This is the real action.

And never before have I had the desire to recapture what I’ve forgotten over ten years, to compensate for this pop culture void in my life.  But here I am now, traipsing around outside a neon-lit theater at three in the morning, digging into my wallet without even thinking, making sure I can get that ticket, see it as soon as I possibly can. And I don’t know what this movie’s trying to do, and I half expect to be bored by the action sequences, by my ignorance of the myth.  But by God, I want to consume. I want to participate. And I even want to exploit this consumer act, this mass phenomenon, right here, write a piece about it, without really knowing what it is I’m writing about.

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