Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: George Lucas

The Emperor of Marin County

It is fan-boyishly pretentious of me to call the career of George Lucas a tragedy:* the man is richer than Croesus; his Lucasfilms production company is completely autonomous; he can, literally, do anything he wants in film-making, and his work bank-rolling the technical aspects of digital creation and photography guarantee that he can do anything in film-making. All hail King George.

And now that he's sold his properties to Disney (for 4.05 billion dollars) he is allowed to continue to fund his Education Foundation (edutopia) and other charitable entities, and leave the day-to-day of making movies to others in Disneyland far, far away.

And it's not fair to compare his story with that of the other "turks" of his generation who've made their own fortunes with film,** Lucas was a pioneer who struck it rich before anybody and showed them how it was done by being practical and investing in the craft.***  But in so doing, the maverick film-maker he was became lost. In the context of his American Graffiti, he wanted to be Curt, but became Steve. And in an Imperial view, he started out as Luke Skywalker, battling the Emperors of established  Hollywood, and ended up as his own Dark Father. In a sense, so do we all.  Lucas knows all about cycles...his third "Star Wars" trilogy was to have been about the fall of the post-Star Wars Trilogy New Republic—we, as an audience, might not have handled that, I think (we'll see what Disney and first directorial lord J.J. Abrams does with it)—so, maybe the circle will be complete. Maybe some day the maverick will return. That is my new hope.

Here are the handful of films directed by George Lucas:

Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138: 4EB (1967) A virtually silent film (save two words) with a complicated sound overlay, "EL:THX" is a security tape summary of one man's attempt to escape an anti-septic, electronically-monitored society of the future. Performances are uniformly amateurish--it was, after all, Lucas' final student project at USC and everything was volunteer-level. But the ideas are good, and the cumulative effect of watching the story being told visually and aurally is sophisticated and pretty stunning. The one time the sound-track goes into sync actually comes off as pretentious, such is the cumulative effect of the film.

THX-1138 (1971) Lucas' expansion of his student film was the first production of Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope Studios - and nearly sank it. Lucas lucked out being able to use the still-under-construction BART system and tunnels. Good cast headed (baldly) by Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance. The reverent score by Lalo Schifrin and sound-design/screenplay by Walter Murch all help the look and feel of the production. Lucas' depressive eye for angles and ideas on societal strictures are all an improvement, and if one is bored by the extended sociological tack of the film, they are paid off with an adrenaline-pumping chase, with a suitably triumphant finale. Lucas' "Director's Cut" restores "Buck Rogers" serial footage which over-states the theme of the movie, and adds CGI-enhanced scenes for bigger scale and "coolness" factor, but ultimately they're unnecessary.
Robo-cops chase THX-1138 in the half-hour climax of THX

American Graffiti (1973) "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (as produced by AIP) with its mythical quests, sage mentors and feats of daring-do played out on a small-town high school's last night of Summer, American Graffiti thematically fits snugly and securely into Lucas' other films set in unfamiliar locales in the future, and "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way." Having been challenged by producer Francis Ford Coppola to make a film "that people will like," it is Lucas' best film, reaching deeply into his own psyche to connect with his audience, and creating a sweet ode to the 50's while bidding them good-bye forever. 

Smart, funny, sweet and sad, this film, made on a shoe-string, is Lucas' warmest, least pretentious movie. It created a nostalgia craze that never really went away, and launched the careers of a generation of actors (Richard Dreyfuss, Harrson Ford, Suzanne Somers, and Cindy Williams became stars, while Ron Howard dove-tailed into the chronally similar but more generic "Happy Days" and became a director. For an extended look at it, you can go here.  
Mel's Drive-In: the hub of the wheel around which American Graffiti revolves

Star Wars (1977) (Later Retitled: "Episode IV: A New Hope") Making a movie he "wanted to see," Lucas cribbed from the movies, myth and classic sci-fi to make a poly-glot "Flash Gordon" serial with better technology and a smart-ass attitude, while also bowing deeply to the tradition of the square-jawed, comely-maiden school of B-movie-making. Star Wars, one must remember, is a fairy-tale for boys, of rescuing damsels (even if she's hard as nails) and slaying ogres and continuing the family name. (Ulp!). Justifiably spawning an empire of its own, Lucas' original, despite his protestations and tinkerings, still contains more inventive ideas and directorial brio than any of its imitators and sequels. The first three minutes alone are examples of the most bravura film-making (and statement of intentions) than anything seen in the previous 16 years. You'd have to go back to David Lean to find anything so exultant in presenting its ideas. 

And its audience responded in kind (and eventually not-so-kind). The memory of seeing it the second day of its ultimately two-year run at the UA Cinema 150 (R.I.P.) remains to this day.
Around about here was the first "Holy Sith!" moment in Star Wars

Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Episode II: Attack of the Clones  (2002)
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) After Lucas' traumatic experiences making Star Wars—only to see it become the most successful film ever made—he took a desk-job producing the sequels and only emerged after investing the millions of dollars in Star Wars-related earnings to perfect the techniques of CGI-centered, high-definition video (which would prove to be the wave of the future for film-makers) to make his epic Star Wars prequel trilogy. Roger Ebert famously said of The Phantom Menace: "If it were the first "Star Wars" movie, The Phantom Menace would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough." But this is the fourth movie of the famous series, and we think we know the territory." A wise comment, that, with some genuine objectivity, as opposed to the blinkered subjectivity that the series' "true fans" brought to it.

However, one must say, that despite the technological advances from frame 00:00;01 to the last, all the tech, design and artistry only services a story that constantly skirts the sophisticated and plays to the cheap seats.
Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, a CGI'd Ahmed Best, Keira Knightley (...yes), and Natalie Portman
The Phantom Menace

Somewhere along the way, Lucas lost sight of his audience; instead of aiming for the 25-year old geeks like himself, as he originally did, he chose to aim for the kids (his kids, no doubt) to tell the story of Anakin Skywalker's corruption to become the technoid villain Darth Vader (along with the destruction of the democratic and seemingly benign Galactic Republic). 

A story that dark and depressing he aimed at kids? Kids? Do you want to make a My First Reader version of East of Eden?

There is a lot to like about the prequels—its sumptuous art design, the abandonment of some of the more black-and-white concepts (the Republic is subverted from within to become the Evil Empire rather than, say, invasion, Lucas' brief flirtation with the "Messiah as Asshole" storyline, the full-scale commitment to the "good-girl/bad-boy" story to the detriment of both characters) but ultimately one has to ask: "With all the time and money invested in the movies, shouldn't they have been better?" I'm not talking of the nit-picking "looking-for-a-problem" complaints of racism (so...everybody's supposed to sound British?), or performance (a lot of which is quite good, given it's supposed to emulate the histrionics of '40's movie serials). Lucas had the unique ability to do everything he wanted, and a tough, dark storyline that could have said so much more and been worth much more. 

Now, that is a lot of clones...

But then, would it have been the B-movie-based Star Wars? Would that have been even less of a crowd-pleaser (and let's face facts, the Prequels still managed to make a LOT of money)? As they were, they were grudgingly watched, grumblingly accepted and Lucas' reputation as a film-maker forever tarnished (as if he cared).

Lucas, in interviews around the time of Sith (specifically one with Charlie Rose), was well-aware of the ironies: He had started as a "rebel" film-maker battling the big bad Studio System (seen as stifling creativity) and, in so doing, managed to create his own Lucasfilm Empire with more power and autonomy than any Studio in Hollywood. He became more of a Studio than they were, dictating how they were to market and release his films if they were awarded distribution. And I think he is equally aware that that fate is its own tragedy. His fortunes are tied forever with Star Wars and its ancillary marketing products...and he never managed to completely leave his home-town of Modesto, much like Ron Howard's Steve Bollander in American Graffiti.
Cast-out and cast-in: Darth Vader stands in Revenge of the Sith
The circle becomes complete
The young Lucas would hold the older in complete disdain. But that's what happens when one's goals are for power and autonomy above all else. In completing his "Star Wars" prequels, he told a story that paralleled his own.

* I say this because I've been a fan of the man since way back, when I first saw THX-1138 (on a double-bill with Suylent Green) at the Crossroads Theater with my brother.  Lucas' springing from that film to American Graffiti to Star Wars, while avoiding the pit-falls of the studio system, amazed me, and his insistence on an enveloping, enriching film sound design is THE reason I pursued a career in audio—He inspired me.  So, it may be fan-boyish of me to rail against what Lucas has become—I'm not, I'm as big a fan as ever—but I note the ironies, and I miss the film-making "kid" he was (but, hey, we all grow up).  I could give a shit that "Han shot Greedo first," but I miss the insouciance of the director who first made that call.

** Spielberg has paralleled Lucas' economic model but not his artistic one—sure, there's Dreamworks SKG, but it isn't completely dependent on films, and Spielberg never turned E.T. into a film cash-cow—there's never been one sequel.  Francis Coppola, Lucas' mentor, famously had money troubles all through his film-making career, and then found his roots in wine-making and Italian cuisine, made his fortune, and does the occasional experimental hobby-film to keep his hand in.

*** One of my favorite Lucas anecdotes (and quotes) was reported by Coppola's wife in her book on "Apocalypse Now," in which Coppola, Lucas, and another director (Spielberg?) are on a plane and Coppola is pontificating on the director's art: "Directing is like pursuing a beautiful woman, it must be seduced...but the perfection is always out of reach..." (or some such nonsense).  To which Lucas, shlumpily adds: "Making movies is chasing girls." I think that says it all. That line has always endeared Lucas to me.

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