Jedi kōan: If your ticket to the premiere of Star Wars says 12:01 a.m., Wednesday, May 18, what time does the movie actually start? Answer: 12:01 a.m., Thursday, May 19.
Confused? Well, so were we.
My friend and I had bought our tickets to the opening night of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith on Fandango only a week before. We were surprised we could still get them.
“Dude, we’re going to the first showing of Star Wars.”
We are fans, but not fanatics. Sure, I may secretly believe I have the Force (and I used to have a lightsaber till it broke) but you will not find any Boba Fett costumes hanging in my closet. The grand opening of a Star Wars movie, however, is a cultural phenomenon, and we figured if we could get the tickets, we might as well go for it.
Risking disaster, we show up only 10 minutes early (or, for a Star Wars premiere, an hour and half late). No one is there. No line wrapped around the block, no stormtroopers, no Wookiees, nothing. We check our Fandango ticket printout again. 12:01 a.m., Wednesday, May 18. We’re here at the right time. But on the door to the Kips Bay theater is a little note that says Star Wars opens tomorrow night, not tonight. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who’d shown up at the wrong time.
Dejected, confused, we head home and try to figure out what the hell went wrong. We send out emails, we call Loews, we call Fandango, but digital recordings cannot give us the answers we want. We begin to wonder if our movie time ever even existed. Had we bought tickets to a phantom show? Maybe in some sort of weird space-time vacuum, our movie had simply vanished. Yes, maybe that’s what happens when you go see a futuristic movie that’s set a long time ago (in a galaxy, far, far away): space and time go all to hell. Because our tickets—their promise of Wednesday, 12:01 a.m. now passed and proven empty— seemed absolutely meaningless now. They certainly couldn’t be for any other time, could they? Did Wednesday really mean Thursday, and a.m., p.m.? Did midnight mean something else, and did time work differently than we thought? And was this how the Millennium Falcon made the jump to hyperspace?
I go to bed that night feeling a little uneasy.
Early the next afternoon, we get an email reply from a customer service representative over at Fandango. “We apologize for any confusion caused by the date printed on your purchase confirmation page… The date listed on your confirmation page matches the industry standard to post after midnight show times as the previous night’s date. For example in a newspaper you will find 12 a.m. and other early morning show times that are technically shown on Saturday morning listed with Friday night show times…”
In other words, though our tickets said 12:01a.m. on the 18th, they meant 12:01 a.m. on the 19th. The Fandango rep went on to note that there were several places during the ticket purchase process where this was explained more clearly (I guess we simply hadn’t noticed them). Nonetheless, as a sign of their good faith, Fandango offered us our tickets for free.
“Dude, we’re going to the first Star Wars showing for free.”
It was good to know that our tickets still actually meant something, even if they didn’t mean what they said, and it was wonderfully absurd that we were now getting them for free (obviously, Fandango was attempting to reconcile the mix-up as best they could)—but none of this changed the fact that something really weird had happened. Apparently, the sanctity of midnight had been violated.
According to Fandango and “the industry,” the date no longer changes at midnight, as civic time dictates—it changes when their movie schedule for the day comes to an end. Movieland—because it wasn’t just Fandango doing this, it was other online vendors like Moviefone, as well as theater chains like Loews—had disregarded the whole standard date/time thing as a technicality, and invented their own relative way of telling it.
Of course, such an approach to the idea of midnight happens quite often colloquially, especially in New York, where a “Saturday night,” for instance, often continues far into the technical Sunday morning. Still, when a date and time is printed on a movie ticket confirmation, you expect it to be literal, and say what it means. Wednesday, May 19 at 12:01 a.m. should mean just that.
Besides, this wasn’t just some random date and time—this was the very first show of the “final” episode of Star Wars, a galactically significant event. But here the industry was, messing with calendrical space and time like it was Pope Gregory.
I don’t know, maybe Hollywood was on to something—maybe it’s time for a change in time. I mean, after all, excepting creatures of the nightshift, who actually wakes up at midnight and begins their new day? Why should that be when the date flips over—is someone trying to sneak something by us while we sleep?
Logically, wouldn’t dawn be a more sensible time—say, six in the morning—to have our civic day begin? Consider how other calendar systems do it: The Sumerians, the originators of the 12-hour clock, had 12 hours from dusk to dawn, and 12 from dawn to dusk; astronomers’ days go from noon to noon; the Jewish calendar-day begins at dusk; and depending on interpretation, the Quranic day starts either at dusk or dawn.
It turns out our own way of doing it all is loosely based upon solar noon, when the sun is at its zenith along the celestial meridian, though solar noon and clock noon rarely match up. (Interestingly, by definition, noon is neither a.m. nor p.m.—noon is simply noon—and so it is with its opposite, midnight.)
Anyway, Hollywood is an institution, maybe even a religion: Shouldn’t they have a shot at changing how we think about date and time, too? Yes, maybe the industry had a point, disregarding midnight as an irrelevant, arbitrary (and above all, confusing) time to start a new day.
Still, though, there is something lovely about the meaning of midnight as we know it—how it is then, when we are farthest from the light, that the new day is born. As if, in life, it is when things are at their darkest that they are just about to begin, and the light is about to return. After all, wasn’t this the message of the movie we were about to see? In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin turns to the dark side and becomes Vader. Yet at the apex of all this shadow, Luke, a new hope, is born.
“The industry” should know to appreciate a moment of such perfect drama as midnight.
That night, we arrive an hour ahead of time, though the tickets still say we are 23 hours late. There are people on line, and we almost make the mistake of standing in it without knowing what it’s for, but we ask and it turns out they’re waiting for the 12:20 show—the 12:01 crowd has already stormed the theater. We head in, and manage to get center seating three rows back—a little close, but not bad. (I consider how if the ticket time thing had been accurate, and we’d showed up the night before with only 10 minutes to spare, we would have been totally screwed, sitting in opposite corners of the front row, and I silently thank the industry gods for their space-time rebellion.)
And sure, it’s an hour before showtime and the theater’s already packed and electric, but it’s not quite the scene I imagined. In fact, a surprising amount of people are not dressed up—a few guys comparing light-sabers here and there, a hooded bathrobe or two. The most spectacular vision I see all night is a woman outside the theater with a perfect set of Princess Leia coiled hair buns (“Are those real?” I ask my friend, conspiratorially. “I don’t know,” he whispers back.) She has the look right, too—a beauty and concern on her face to match Princess Leia’s, as if, there on 2nd Avenue, she is awaiting someone of grand importance, a messenger carrying information vital to the survival of the Rebellion.
But though I hear an occasional call of a Wookiee emanating from all those rows behind me, and a couple lightsabers glow in the darkened theater, I see no one in full regalia—which makes sense, I guess—after all, who would want to watch Episode III from behind Darth Vader’s mask with its smoked glass eyes? Instead it is your regular New York City midnight crowd, people in baseball caps and t-shirts, haircuts and jeans.
How many of these people had shown up the night before, fandangoed by space and time? Were they, like us, now sitting here for free? And just what day was it, anyway? It mattered not. It was 12:01 a.m. on some day, and Star Wars was about to begin….
Taylor Plimpton is the author of Notes from the Night: A Life After Dark and the editor of The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays. He has spent much of his life in the Hamptons.