May the Fourth Be With You…Using Magazine Archives in Research

Library Resources | May 04, 2017

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There are many benefits to conducting academic research with magazine archives. Whether providing a snapshot of a time in history or showing the progression of ideas and trends through the years, archive issues of magazines help round out research with historical context.

One particularly influential historical phenomenon which still affects countless aspects of today’s culture was covered in Time magazine in 1977. The phenomenon was “Star Wars.”

Back in the 1970’s, science fiction was a little respected and niche genre, largely featuring spaceships on wires and scantily clad women. Many movies were serious and contemporary in content, portraying realism and grit. Sequels were rare. There was no proliferation of marketing tie-ins (action figures, clothing, bedding, toothbrushes, coffee mugs and more) lining aisles of store shelves. When “Star Wars” was released, it would go on to change not only the future of filmmaking, but also minds, philosophies, marketing, technology and merchandising well into the 21st Century. 

What was America like before this film? How has it changed since? How has Star Wars changed our popular culture and values? Why did it have such a powerful impact? Thousands of scholarly books and articles have been written on the topic in years since, but to properly document with historic proof, popular periodicals of the time are the place to turn for proof of cultural change.

In May 1977, Time published the article “Star Wars: The Year’s Best Movie.” The movie had just been released, and it was clear that there was something special happening. Here are some examples of the culture at the time and how culture has changed over the years.

  • “Advance screenings and word-of mouth have already given it an out-sized reputation among film buffs and science fiction addicts — two groups united usually only by their enthusiasm.” The article explains that 6,000 color transparencies were stolen and “they are now selling for more than $5 each to sci-fi freaks.” Now shows like The Big Bang Theory celebrate nerd culture and science fiction entertainment while superhero conventions abound.
  • “Universal…believed that Lucas had gone, well, too far out when he handed in a twelve-page outline for Star Wars.” Lucas is quoted as saying “They think I do weird films.” “Even close friends and film-school colleagues…thought Lucas should follow American Graffiti with a deep picture, one that had meaning, significance and recondite symbolism. Of course everyone was right: it was a weird idea to make a movie whose only purpose was to give pleasure.” Now there is an endless supply of action blockbusters, and super hero stories, and epic fantasy films designed to entertain.
  • “The real wonder of Star Wars, however, is not the robots or the monsters, good as they are. It is rather the wizardly special effects, many of them never attempted or even possible before.” “Lucas and Dykstra had the advantage over 2001 of another decade of computer technology. They were able to link the camera to a sophisticated calculator, which recorded and memorized every shot.” Lucas and Dykstra created Industrial Light and Magic, a company now synonymous with quality special effects. As for the use of computers in rendering special effects? Now there are whole “farms” of processors cranking out effects so real they are taken for granted.

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