The People vs. George Lucas (2010)

Disclaimer: The People vs. George Lucas is one of my sources for quotes in this article, but I’m also leaning heavily on Peter Biskind’s absolutely masterful account of Hollywood from roughly 1965 to 1985, a book called Easy Riders, Raging BullsSeriously, if you haven’t read that before, stop reading this and read that instead. I’ve read it several times from cover to cover, and thus I really only had to go back to it when I wanted quotes.

Some feature documentaries attempt to take on too much material and then fail to cover all of it adequately, which makes for a documentary with weak editorial power: I recently viewed Constantine’s Sword, which tries to focus on the union of Christianity and the military as well as Christianity’s historic anti-Semitism…you can see the problem. Then there are feature documentaries which don’t cover enough, or focus on things which are ancillary to the greater issues at hand: Benji, part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, is about a brilliant high school basketball player in Chicago who should have been an NBA great, but was murdered…the documentary touches on gang violence and healthcare issues, but prefers to become a tribute to what Ben Wilson could have been rather than an incisive piece about more pressing, more powerful, and, with no disrespect to Wilson, more interesting topics.

The People vs. George Lucas was definitely in line to fall into one of those traps: Alexandre O. Philippe could very easily have chosen to make a ninety minute fan rant about all of Lucas’ sins across Star Wars and Indiana Jones, or he could have turned the documentary into a film that’s only about fan culture. The fact that he finds a middle ground to work within makes this one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve watched in a while. The film manages to have a strong thesis (that George Lucas is at once beloved and reviled by his fans) while also discussing a wealth of material, most of which I’m going to try to speak to in this space. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, as I think that the topic could probably have taken a few hints from literary theory and fewer hints from “he owes us” members of the fanbase, but we’ll get to all that later.

1. Placing Lucas
One of the most repeated words in this documentary is “genius,” and it’s almost always hurled at George Lucas: George Lucas is a genius, Star Wars is a genius piece of work, Star Wars toys and products are genius moneymakers, etc. And in a way, the various people who say it aren’t wrong. The never ending line of Star Wars products is probably the greatest iteration of genius from Lucas, but this film does well to remember that when Star Wars was released in 1977, Lucas was known to be part of a generation of filmmakers whose best and worst films have a positive chasm  between them. My older brother is fond of saying that Bruce Willis is an actor who’s got more in common with a well-regarded actor like Tom Hanks than he does someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, even though Schwarzenegger and Willis have more similar star personae. Well, George Lucas is more like Francis Ford Coppola than he is Michael Bay, and it’s not even close.

Allow me a brief interlude before we really get started. The People vs. George Lucas fails to mention, in my opinion, two essential facts about Lucas. The documentary notes that Lucas grew up never doing well in school, not having a good relationship with his authoritarian father, not being terribly popular. That’s all true, and all three of those facts are linked, in my opinion, with a powerful introversion. Lucas is a shy person who has had a hard time forming relationships, and he has been since he was a little kid. Imagine being a mostly anti-social introvert (or don’t, if you are one) who for years has to deal with attention, adoration, and fixation from a fan group which combines numbers and obsession in a way that maybe only the Star Trek franchise can equal. Second fact: The People vs. George Lucas never mentions Marcia Lucas, which astounds me. Marcia, George’s wife, was a well-regarded editor who worked on American Graffiti and Star Wars with her husband, winning an Oscar for the latter, and edited three times for Scorsese, including Taxi Driver. Marcia divorced George in 1983, claiming that George, who had always been a thinker instead of a feeler like her, had finally become too obsessed with control, too unforgiving, too unkind, too distant. Marcia Lucas also thought that she had provided a balance to her husband’s personality; if we take her word for it (and it’s not just hers, but the words of friends as well), then Lucas lost a personal and professional foil after the completion of The Return of the Jedi. Marcia Lucas never wrote anything Star Wars, but I don’t think it’s terribly dissimilar from another director who alienated his intelligent, respected movie business wife: Peter Bogdanovich lost more than a costume and set designer when Polly Platt divorced him. 

For about a decade, the directors really ran Hollywood as an auteurist fad combined with slumping box office receipts briefly remade the movie industry. From 1967 (Bonnie and Clyde) to 1980 (Raging Bull), Hollywood turned out brilliant film after brilliant film as directors like Coppola, Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, and Robert Altman, among others, led this vanguard of young directors who fought their way to brilliance (Coppola’s The Godfather, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, Altman’s Nashville, etc.) and once they had the control, frankly blew it. Coppola, the most powerful of the bunch, lost control of American Zoetrope, alienated Lucas, lost control over Apocalypse Now, and  finally made one of the least successful films in history, One from the Heart, in 1982. Friedkin, despite his protestations otherwise, tried to remake The Wages of Fear as Sorcerer, a film which likewise flopped hard. Bogdanovich’s personal life eclipsed whatever filmmaking genius he had, as Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love were back-to-back flops featuring Cybill Shepard, who dominated his life. Even Scorsese flopped with New York, New York during his cocaine addiction. (And if you’re counting at home, that’s three failed tribute musicals by auteurs.) The coup de grace for the era is almost certainly Michael Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate; by that point, the studios had not only wised up a bit, but they also had a new tool in their back pockets: the blockbuster.

The Godfather is the first blockbuster of the era, but it’s Jaws that changed everything. Jaws had one advantage that movies before The Godfather didn’t have: namely, it would be opened in hundreds of theaters on its opening weekend instead of several. And though that helped rocket Jaws’ receipts, that wasn’t any different from what had happened with The Godfather. The real difference was that Universal spent a lot of money on television ads before the film came out, which primed the public imagination. Jaws set a box office record; when Star Wars came out two years later, Fox was ready, and Star Wars made a then-totally absurd $100 million in three months. Of course, what Jaws and Star Wars don’t have in common with The Godfather is depth. One can write pages upon pages of criticism on Jaws and Star Wars, but The Godfather is a much more complicated film in terms of plot, action, and character. This isn’t by itself a criticism of Jaws or Star Wars. Jaws is shot excellently, with some really brilliant choices of camera angles and movement, and Star Wars’ special effects are so good that they still look good in 2013. Yet Star Wars, and this is counter to what most folks in The People vs. George Lucas have to say, contributed to the dumbing down motion pictures with a totally linear and really simple good guys v. bad guys plot. Christopher Nolan passes for a smart summer blockbuster these days, and Star Wars (and Jaws) opened the door. I suppose I could blame Jaws and Star Wars for the cynical practice of inflicting sequel after sequel on moviegoers, but that seems unfair, especially to Star Wars, which has two very good sequels which can both stand on their own perfectly well. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While Lucas’ auteurist friends like Coppola were making films that would cement their legacies, Lucas was a bit of late starter in that area: he made THX 1138 in 1971, and American Graffiti followed in ’73. The former is a difficult if interesting science-fiction piece set in an Orwellian future (better regarded now than it was at its release), while the latter spawned Happy Days, though in Lucas’ defense, there’s very little that’s slick about Graffiti (which was acknowledged then, as now, as a really fine film). The common denominator between two otherwise very different movies is that Lucas wanted more control over both of them, especially THX 1138; this is a trend that The People vs. George Lucas picks up on, as well as the fact that Lucas’s student work is largely made up of filmic “tone poems.” In short: in 1977, Lucas is a promising filmmaker who’s still leaning on Coppola for support, but he’s also a guy who, in his own words, was expected to make “Apocalypse Now after Graffiti, and not Star Wars. They said I should be doing movies like Taxi Driver.” That statement about Apocalypse Now isn’t a hypothetical: the movie was originally conceived of as a Lucas vehicle, not something for Coppola to do. That’s something which The People vs. George Lucas manages to keep in the back of its mind, and that’s fitting.Yet what might be most clear about Lucas as a young director was that in the early ’70s, the studios had not been kind to him. THX 1138 and American Graffiti have something important in common, and that’s that both were made in a hurry at the demands of totally thankless studios. Coppola managed to intervene both times for Lucas, but he never forgot how awful the experience was. Before beginning work on The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas wanted what Biskind calls “a stingingly putative deal” from Fox. From Biskind:

He enjoyed sticking it to the studio, explaining, “I got screwed in the beginning and now I’m able to do it to them.”

Control over his own work is the goal for Lucas. It has been since the ’70s, at least, and that hasn’t changed. More Biskind:

Francis [Ford Coppola] was reckless, George, cautious. Francis was collaborative to a fault. Lucas had a vision he defended fiercely. Where Francis would delegate, Lucas was a control freak, would have done everything – write, shoot, direct, produce, and edit – himself.

So when we apply that to the Star Wars franchise…

2. The Original Versions and the Remastered Versions

There’s a section of The People vs. George Lucas called “The Great Tinkerer,” and I think that’s a fairly perfect description of Lucas when it comes to Star Wars. The documentary does well to note that Lucas is in a position which is so rare that it’s almost unique: he’s created something so totally popular that he can go back, change some stuff, put in theaters, and then have scads of folks come to see it. As they mention in the film, there are five cuts of Blade Runner and three of Brazil. The problem with all of these new releases is that, for better or worse, it weakens the original film that was released. The director’s vision might be better served through a re-release or a “director’s cut,” but director’s cuts tend to do two things: 1) muddle perception of a film through what is usually a needless addition of text and 2) make more money for the studios and distributors. How that helps a film get better, I don’t know, though unless you waste your money on a director’s cut, they’re also largely harmless. Even though Apocalypse Now has the Redux, the one that was released in theaters is still the definitive text.

That’s the difference between Star Wars and the remastered version which appeared in the 1990s. We still exist largely in a time when the director is still an auteur, and thus saying that something is a “director’s cut” is shorthand for “authentic” where we read “authentic” as “better.” And yet that alone isn’t enough to make the 1997 remastered version authentic. In an unseeable nod to Raymond Williams, perhaps, the people interviewed mention that the remastered original trilogy (at least the edits from 1997, and there have been a zillion edits and additions since) very quickly became the only droids that you could look for at Best Buy. All five of those Blade Runners are available for sale, and they note that one of the three Brazils is firmly disliked by Terry Gilliam, and yet it still exists. Lucas has worked really hard to ensure that the last home viewing copies of the original films are on Laserdisc and VHS, media that he said will be gone in three or four decades. That’s a man who’s counting on his tinkered vision becoming the definitive one by the time Star Wars turns fifty. I’m entering the world of speculation here, but I seriously doubt that anyone born after about 1995 appreciates the 1977, 1981, and 1983 originals as the ones they relate to. I was seven when Star Wars turned twenty; I grew up on the original, but I confess that various remastered ones are probably just as familiar to me. 

The fans make a massive number of complaints in this documentary about Lucas, the vast majority of which are largely overstated and occasionally wrongheaded, but there are three that they make which are really valid issues. The “Han shot first” controversy is a holy war, in all fairness. Greedo shooting first is a disservice to the Star Wars universe, to the plot of the film, and most importantly, to Han Solo. Character-based stories are virtually always superior plot-based ones, and when you neuter arguably the best character in the film (mad props to Darth, of course), you lose so much of what makes Han Solo fascinating. The other criticism that I heard which really hit home for me was that replacing so much of the old special effects and set work from the original with CGI in the remastered version was really disrespectful to the folks who worked on it in the ’70s. Lucas was massively frustrated with ILM when they were starting up, and for all I know that still rankles; CGI is also a more impressive look than the stop-motion that ILM relied upon. However, remember all that talk about auteurism? Replacing the work those people did is a deeply auteurist thing to do, and that definitely doesn’t sit well with me. The special effects in Star Wars looked like Avatar does to us today…it elides film history in a really unfortunate fashion, I’d say.

But most importantly, the fans are totally right when they complain that you can’t buy a DVD or Blu-ray version of the original films. George Lucas created the universe, he directed Star Wars, he wrote all three pictures, he lived with massive scrutiny and pressure while doing all of it. If he wants to go back and clean up the picture quality and maybe add in a weird scene with Jabba the Hutt and throw some CGI dewbacks in, whatever. He’s earned that. But it’s just so odd that Lucas means to shove this new version down the collective throat of Star Wars geeks. It’s the ultimate “your taste is bad and you should feel bad” gesture. There’s a memorable clip in The People vs. George Lucas where this one guy on a panel says something to the effect of, “Look, I’d buy any box set which included the original trilogy as it was released in theaters, no matter what else I’d need to buy with it.” And I seriously doubt that he’s the only fellow who feels that way. I’m not sure I don’t feel that way. But what Lucas is doing is attempting to censor his own work, which is both deeply intriguing and wildly frustrating. It all goes back to what Biskind identified about Lucas before The Phantom Menace hit the fan; Lucas, like many other artists of his quality, meant to be creator and ombudsman of his own work. Because Lucas is in many ways a visionary, that’s almost laudable; because Lucas is not accountable, it’s painful for his fans.

3. Sympathy for George Lucas (Thanks, Neil Gaiman!)

There are several distinct thoughts that The People vs. George Lucas has across the film: the massive fan interaction with Star Wars, and how people want to recreate (and live) it themselves in various ways; the frustration with the remastered version; the anticipation of The Phantom Menace and the incredible backlash which resulted from its release; Jar Jar Binks; Lucas’ attempts to quash the Star Wars which he doesn’t want around anymore. All of those show up, but most of those are tied together, by fans of the films, via this concept that George Lucas owes his fans something, that he’s responsible to them. It’s Neil Gaiman, of course, who has the right answer to that kind of fan:

I don’t have any problem at all with fan edits, fan remixes. It’s an absolutely legitimate and really cool response to the art. But I also don’t believe that any of those fans has the right to go and knock on my door and say, “I don’t like this character, I want you to take him out of your book.” ‘Cause it’s like, “No, I got to make this, this came out of my head, leave me alone.” 

(I didn’t remember exactly where this was in the film, and I looked for like, five-plus minutes. That’s my measure of devotion to this quote.)

Gaiman makes a really salient point here, the crux of which is, “Fix it yourself.” Part of the reason people don’t is that things like fanfiction are still low-prestige activities in the mainstream culture. And maybe it’s true that your Game of Thrones fanfiction requires less imagination or organization than George R.R. Martin displays over five massive books in which he does some deeply impressive work, but it’s not a moral wrong to say, “I’ve internalized this so totally that I’ve been inspired to play with the world of this universe, which I’m now expanding and deepening.” I mean, like Gaiman says, whether it’s a Star Wars fanfiction or an edit of The Phantom Menace which removes Jar Jar Binks and midi-chlorians from the conversation, that’s cool stuff. That’s work that goes into engaging with something you love. Why it’s okay for sportswriters with a national audience to dream about possible trades (I could have chosen about fifty other Simmons columns for that link), or to base their judgment on baseless subjunctive comments about what some player is thinking (hint: see the first section, about Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard) and not okay for fans to do similar work on the movies or books they like is really beyond my understanding.

But “Fix it yourself” is not the same as “Savage it yourself.” And sure, maybe Jar Jar Binks was a misstep, though if he’s a misstep, the Ewoks are a misstep as well. Both provide appeal for children (which is part of the joy of Star Wars: didn’t you see Freaks and Geeks?), and both prove a running point about how the warm natural (Gungans, Ewoks) can be superior to the cold and unfeeling technological (droid armies, stormtroopers). And midi-chlorians kind of throw a big ol’ wet towel over the Force, which used to be spiritual and now is just biology. The difference is that one group of fans, the fixers, are creating in protest. The other group of fans is just being mean because they feel entitled to something. More Neil Gaiman, which I had to psycho-look for (For a movie that’s not even two hours, this was like a needle in a haystack.)

Fans know exactly what they want. Fans want more of the last thing they read and they liked. That’s what fans want. They liked that thing you did, they would like another one of those, please.

You’ve had that experience, right? I introduced my mother to Jason Robert Brown through The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World. She listened to Parade with me on a road trip and said she didn’t like it as well as the other two. That doesn’t surprise me, because Parade has way less in common with The Last Five Years, which she really likes, than The Last Five Years has in common with Songs for a New World. I know I have it when I listen to new musicals…or, and here’s a post I’ve been brewing for a while, whenever a new Pixar movie comes out. I would like another Toy Story, please. Doesn’t that just sound awful? But that’s what fans do, probably with the best intentions…but it’s still grating and constricting.

When Gaiman says it, you can just hear the frustration in his voice. For Lucas, I’m amazed that he can even think something in the same time zone of that thought without acting on that frustration by stealing a B-2 and wreaking havoc on Modesto. The best artists have themes, considerations, even characters which run through their whole oeuvre, but they also find ways to change how they discuss it. It’s been almost 3500 words and I haven’t mentioned Faulkner yet, which has to be a record for me: Faulkner talks about the post-Reconstruction South (that’s race, economies, where women fit in, nature) in virtually everything he did. Almost all of it takes place in Yoknapatawpha County. The Snopes family, the Compsons, the Benbows, the Sartorises, Temple Drake…they keep showing up. And yet each of the novels approaches something about the post-Reconstruction South in a different fashion. You can’t read Light in August and say that you got the same thing out of it that you got from Absalom, Absalom! that you got from Sanctuary that you got from Flags in the Dust. That’s part of the brilliance of Faulkner. If that’s so, then part of the brilliance of Lucas is that he talks about the same topics (what makes someone turn bad, nature v. technology, destiny, etc.) across six movies placed in the same universe with largely the same cast of characters, but that they all have different things to say, different ways of approaching those considerations, different foci. And sometimes, approaching what you’re interested in in a different way requires it to be, well, different than you expected. Lucas has gotten a lot of criticism from a lot of people, including me, for making the first concern of his new trilogy a trade embargo…but look, that’s a daring choice and a perfectly valid way to create tension. We didn’t like it for a lot of reasons, but a reason that I think was a lot higher on people’s lists than they’d like to admit was that there wasn’t anything as grandiose as a Death Star. Part of being a good fan is accepting that you liked what an artist did and then accepting that you don’t need to infringe on an artist doing something which varies from what you liked…even if it includes lots of the same elements you loved before.

4. The Moral: Screw J.J. Abrams

This documentary, perhaps fortunately, was made before the announcement of Star Wars VII, Star Wars VIII, and Star Wars IX. (Even though there are some folks interviewed who say something along the lines of, “I’d definitely stand in line to see another trilogy.”) I remember being on Twitter as the news broke. There were two reactions, which followed each other so rapidly that it’s really more like one. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Why would they make more of these? I’m going to see them when they come out.” I may have literally said that.

George Lucas is not going to be in direct control of these films, which, after everything I’ve said about him, sounds like it’ll be awful for him to deal with. The man in charge is J.J. Abrams, who after involvement with ArmageddonLostFringe, Super 8, and two Star Trek movies, can make a claim  to be the most important working voice in filmic sci-fi, a thought which should sicken you as much as it sickens me. My opinion of Abrams (insofar as he relates to Star Trek) is well-documented, though the short version is: he cares more about getting knowing smiles out of a fanbase than he does doing good work, and his work is based on plots and not characters. Abrams isn’t a bad choice for a Star Wars director, really. His cartoonish style meshes better with Star Wars than it does Star Trek, certainly. But Abrams will never be savaged for his choices like Lucas has been, largely in part because Abrams is going to bring back Luke, Han, and Leia. That’ll do two things. First off, it’ll give the fans what they know and what they want; they’ll have more of that, please. (That’s what Abrams’ Star Trek movies are, really, a lazy and sometimes cynical reiteration of things that have already happen so as to “reward” Trekkies). Second, it’ll destroy years of canon which is almost certainly more interesting, better conceived, and more rewarding than whatever fanservice Abrams intends to gift his proles with. Bringing Jar Jar Binks into existence was ill-conceived, and I’ve been doing an oft-requested impersonation of this since I was fifteen or so, but they both take a lot more courage and a lot more creativity than giving Mark Hamill a call.

5. The Score

Just about everyone has realized (The People vs. George Lucas, Peter Biskind, and George Lucas, among others) that Lucas is living one of the most neatly conceived catch-22s in living memory. Lucas wanted to be so successful and wealthy that he could give the finger to the studios and make his own movies the way he wanted to, and no one else. Star Wars did that. Unfortunately for Lucas, Star Wars has come to define him so thoroughly that American Graffiti remains the last non-Star Wars film Lucas ever directed. He’s been involved in other films, of course: the Indiana Jones franchise, LabyrinthHoward the DuckWillow. Yet there’s been no sign of the USC film student making tone poems, or the New Hollywood figure who struggled to make THX 1138 the way he wanted to. You have to wonder if Star Wars is what kept Lucas from making something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s big talk, but the evidence is there for a Lucas who could make something that powerful, abstract, and difficult. Star Wars was just too successful.

Lucas has been hardheaded, he’s been difficult, he’s even been wrong. But what Abrams should keep in mind–what his angry fans should keep in mind–what anyone who’s interested in science fiction or film or both should keep in mind– is that Lucas is one of the great filmic visionaries of the past fifty years. He’s been imperfect, but he’s been magnificent more often. If there’s one thing to take from The People vs. George Lucas, that’s the winner.

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