The clone rangers: Queueing for 'Star Wars'

Four months ago, in a city far, far away, two men started to queue for the new 'Star Wars' film. Strangely, they don't even seem that interested in the movie, as Andrew Gumbel discovers
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The Independent Culture

John Guth and Jeff Tweiten have been standing in line for the new Star Wars film in downtown Seattle since 1 January. An eccentric thing to do, really. After all, there was never much danger of someone cutting in front of them. Until just a couple of weeks ago, when the release schedule for Episode II: Attack of the Clones was confirmed, they couldn't even be sure they were camped out in front of the right cinema. Luckily for them, they guessed right.

Even now, with the premiere days away, their venture has a logic-bending loopiness to it. If their goal was to snatch up the very first tickets, they would have done better to stay home and order them over the internet the nanosecond they went on sale. If they had wanted to see the film before their friends, they should have tried to blag their way into an advance press screening, or sleep with a Lucasfilm executive, or splash out $1,000 on tickets to the charity premiere that takes place four days before the first public showing on 16 May.

But Guth and Tweiten know all that. They haven't chosen to spend 136 days living in the car park behind Seattle's Cinerama just because they are itching to see the film. The film is almost beside the point. They are doing it because they really like the wait; because it's a bit of a stunt; and because, in the strange, geeky, hermetic subculture of die-hard Star Wars fans, it has turned them into folk heroes. "This is a silly thing to do. There is an extremity to it that defies understanding," Guth admits. "But it's not meant to be understood, just accepted."

And so they wait. Their original plan was to queue for two years, an idea they abandoned because they couldn't work out how to finance themselves for so long. Even under the current plan, they will have queued for 100 days longer than the previous record-holders, a team of Star Wars fans who spent 36 days on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles three years ago for Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

They were on the pavement for the first month, waving a banner that read: "Waiting for Star Wars." When that became uncomfortable – partly because of the cold and rain, partly because of complaints that their campsite broke Seattle's anti-vagrancy laws – they moved into the car park, negotiating a preferential rate with the parking company for a block of five spaces.

By now, their growing tent mini-city includes a camper van – Guth's bedroom – as well as a sizeable, marquee-style canopy containing a barbecue grill and heater, a television, video equipment and computers wired up to the internet. There are Star Wars posters on the walls, and a full-size model of R2-D2 (the cuddly robot that looks and sounds like a castrated Dalek).

The experience has had its low moments. Like the time the pair were hit in the face with cream pies by a team of anonymous jokers. Or the time a homeless man defecated outside their tent. Or last week's robbery, in which an assailant made off with a CD player, a leather coat, a clutch of videos and Tweiten's swimming trunks, only to trip up during the getaway and smash his head open on the pavement.

Mostly, though, the wait has been uneventful. Guth, who is 32, thin and a little furtive, runs a multimedia company that he continues to operate from the makeshift premises. Tweiten, who is chubbier and younger, hasn't had a job since he abandoned a teaching career at Christmas. His most tangible achievements over the past four months have been to grow a scraggly beard and watch a lot of Star Trek videos.

To fellow members of the Seattle Star Wars Society – an impressionable group, for sure – their stunt is little short of a stroke of genius. "I think it's ballsy," says Phil Pankow, the society's co-founder. "We all have our different insanities, our different ways to express our love of the saga... This is a wonderfully fanatical thing to do."

Since January, the society has convened its monthly meetings – Star Wars Anonymous – in the Cinerama car park. To judge by last week's get-together, they are pleasantly kooky affairs, a gathering of social misfits, sad-sack obsessives, techie nerds and overgrown schoolboys. Here, they can talk about X-wings, Ewoks, strange anagrams of George Lucas and other minutiae of the Star Wars "universe", without inhibition or embarrassment.

"At my funeral, I want them to play Star Wars music. I want to be buried with my memorabilia, like the pharaohs!" says Jennifer Tovar, an outspoken, older woman who believes that Star Wars has come to her aid at a difficult time in her life.

This is the subculture that Lucas has created: a little pasty, a little overweight, and dressed, for the most part, in the T- and plaid-shirt uniform favoured by The Master himself. There are clubs like this all over the United States, although Seattle, with its strong computer bent, seems particularly fertile territory. Several dozen of the society's members are Microsoft employees.

Everyone at the meeting has their peculiar idiosyncrasy. Stacey Milliken, a pregnant woman with bright-red permed hair, admits that she was addicted to the DVD of Episode I, and couldn't let more than a few days go by without playing it. Her children are named after Star Wars actors: four-year-old Liam for Liam Neeson, and Hayden, her unborn daughter, for Hayden Christensen. Bryon Berron, a cosmetics researcher, reveals his expertise on which lipstick brands work best to simulate Princess Amidala's unorthodox make-up application. Mike Demaine, a graphic designer, opens the boot of his car to reveal boxes of unopened Star Wars toy merchandise. He buys two of everything, one to put on his living-room shelves and the other to keep in its packaging for posterity. "This is pretty much all I spend my money on," he says.

The group is remarkably ready to criticise the Star Wars films themselves. Jar Jar Binks, the patois-jibbering amphibian from Episode I, was deemed to be a dismal irritation – although unconfirmed reports suggest that he could be killed off in the new instalment. Some members also opine that Lucas has no sense of humour.

For a fan club, this is outspoken stuff. It suggests, curiously, that it is the subculture – the karaoke evenings, the trivia contests, the collecting, the cross-country bus rides to Star Wars conventions – that drives these people on, not the films themselves. "I've seen enough Star Wars to kill a small horse. I've no desire to see any more of it," says Tweiten, in a moment of brutal honesty.

No desire to see more? Then why is he spending four months counting down to Attack of the Clones? "Don't get me wrong," he replies hastily. "I still think the movies are great..." One would hope so.

Could it be that Star Wars mania gets harder to keep up as the series progresses and the reviews deteriorate, as they have since the series' high point, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1979? I asked Guth whether he'll be back in 2005, queuing for Episode III, and he gives me a look of alarm. "If someone else wants to do it, fine," he says. But not him. Perhaps, after 25 years of fandom and almost 136 days on the streets of Seattle, it's time to grow up at last.