It’s become commonplace to describe videogames as escapism. Before they are about winning and learning new skills Dark Souls, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and World of Warcraft are about the creation of summary alternatives to the real world. They create an advanced version of the kind of escape movies offered up for decades. Because audience members couldn’t interact, they learned the value of escapism as a passive experience, basking in a movie as its own possibility space.
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Star Wars‘s theatrical release, The New Yorker republished an excerpt from a Jonathan Lethem essay on going to the movies alone. At 13, Lethem went to see Star Wars 21 times in the theaters while going through a difficult period in his life.
I was using the movie as a place to hide. My parents had separated a couple of years earlier. Afterward, my mother began having seizures, was diagnosed as having a brain tumor, and had the first of two unsuccessful surgeries. The summer of “Star Wars,” she was five or six months from the second surgery, and a year from dying. I spent a certain amount of time that summer trying to distract my grandmother from the coming loss of her only child by pushing my new enthusiasms on her, as if she could replace family with pop culture, as I was doing. She and I had an ongoing argument about rock and roll, one that (it now strikes me) was ultimately a kind of argument about whether our family was a site of tragedy. I sensed that I was on the losing end of it, but in any case I worked to find a hit record that she couldn’t quibble with. I thought I’d found it in the Wings’ “Mull of Kintyre,” which is really a strummy Scottish folk song, and one afternoon I auditioned it for her at top volume. She grimaced—her displeasure not at the music but at the trump card I’d played. Then, on the fade, Paul McCartney gave a kind of whoop-whoop holler, and my grandmother seized on it with relish: “You hear that? He had to go and scream!”
I am always leery of describing things as “escapist,” as if escape were a noble thing. “What is it we’re supposed to be escaping from?” I always wonder. There’s a suggestion of sadness in everything escapist, something which Lethem calls out in his recollection of Star Wars.
After my mother and I saw “Star Wars” that day, I decided to stay and watch it a second time, and she left me there and took the subway home alone. I see now that this was a kind of rehearsal. I was saying, in effect, Come and see my future, Mom. Enact with me your parting from it. Here’s the world of cinema and stories I’m using to survive your going—now go. How generous of her to play in this masquerade, if she knew.