Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why I Can’t Really “Get Over” the George Lucas Thing

So The Force Awakens has been killing it at the box office and there are camps in fandom thanking all the celluloid gods for the removal of Lucas from the franchise just as there are, at the extreme opposite end of things, groups demanding Lucas be allowed to get his hands back on the franchise for the next installment of the trilogy. Mixed in with all of the serious discussion has been jokes taking potshots at Lucas over his storytelling, over the prequel trilogy, and over his comments in the days after The Force Awakens started making itself more money than some small countries have.

In all of that I’ve made a few jokes here and there, but largely not said much about it. When I have made comments about Lucas, unflattering while not vicious, I’ve gotten the expected response from fans of the prequel trilogy who assume my greatest beef with Lucas was the godawful trilogy and little else. This is, as they might find when they post their “Get Over It!” memes and responses that cover typical prequel hate, not exactly the case. Yeah, I dislike the prequels, but I have different reason, one I don’t hear mentioned a lot actually, for souring on Lucas that has nothing to do with the prequels, with the fourth Indiana Jones film, or even completely with his most recent comments.

Have you ever heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune? For decades it was talked about as a legendary project that collapsed just before it was about to be filmed. One thing discussed about the film by film geeks and professionals in the industry alike was the huge direct impact it had an American genre cinema for a decade or more after the collapse of the project. While it was never filmed, Alejandro Jodorowsky pulled together people who were almost unknown to Hollywood if not absolutely unknown to Hollywood and had them create entire, fully realized designs, storyboards, and illustrations for the film which he collected in two massive books.

Two things happened during and after the collapse of his Dune film. First, during the collapse, to secure funding for the film he traveled around Hollywood showing his book to studio heads and staff. Second, after the collapse, the people he found and pulled together for his film went off as a group and made one of the most influential science fiction films of its time. The people in question in were Dan O’Bannon, H. R. Giger, and Jean 'Moëbius' Giraud, and the film was Alien. Giger and Giraud would have a huge hand in shaping the visuals of genre cinema for years after that, and some of what they did came out of what they created for a film that never was. Some things that others not connected with the unfilmed Dune did in later years came from seeing the designs and illustrations in Jodorowsky’s book.

For years this was a hard thing to explain to people. You could tell them that an insane genius had created a motion picture that never got filmed, yet this aborted film project profoundly changed the look and feel of Hollywood science fiction and they likely wouldn’t get it. At best, as was the case with me for years, they could claim an academic understanding of it, but not truly get it.

Then, just a few years ago, a documentary titled Jodorowsky's Dune started making the rounds. As soon as people saw it, as soon as they were able to see how Jodorowsky randomly found these people and pulled them together and see the amazing visuals and designs they created for the film… Well, they could finally actually get it. People who could never understand what the fuss was about got it. They were able to see it with their own eyes, and this allowed them to finally understand what many people had been talking about for all those decades. But the thing is they had to be able to see it.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with George Lucas or Star Wars. It’s a cinema history thing.

As influential as Jodorowsky's aborted project was, it on that level in many ways couldn’t hold a candle to Star Wars. The original Star Wars was one of those films where you could literally draw a line on the timeline of cinema history and proclaim there to have been a game changing, cinema altering event when it was released cause a pre and post era. Star Wars wasn’t just a popular film, it was a film that changed the way films that followed it would look, and it raised the bar for what a major studio genre FX film had to look like.

Lots of people talk about “The Look” of Star Wars and discuss how it pulled mainstream science fiction away from everything looking clean, shiny, and brand new and gave us technology that looked lived in. Some of the ships were dirty and grungy, and the Falcon had more in common with your uncle’s beat up Ford F-150 he was always working on in the back yard than it did many of the most popular science fiction vessels that came to the minds of fans at the time. These observations were largely true, but there was something much more important to the look of Star Wars than just the lived in feel of the visuals.

In many ways, the miniature work on Star Wars looked like no film that came before it. Sure, we’d had good looking miniature work in films before Star Wars, but Star Wars gave us miniature FX shots the likes of which we’d never seen before.

The crew behind the miniature work studied actual films of WWII aerial combat. They looked at dog fights, bombing runs, attacks on ships, etc. Their goal was to make the scenes like this in Star Wars look as much as possible like the real footage. They weren’t actually after doing shot for shot recreations, but they wanted that realism instead of the fairly flat sequences so many movies and TV shows had produced. In order to get these shots, they had to in part figure out some new ways to use and to shoot their miniatures. They created new tricks and techniques while improving some existing ones to create scenes involving miniatures that set the new standard for major studio films and changed the look of the major studio films- and all of them rather than just genre films -that came after Star Wars.

You could also make the argument that the original Star Wars trilogy helped up the game for the puppetry work in genre films that would be seen on the big screen, but I’m not going to get too far into that. My puppetry film history isn’t quite as up to snuff as some of my other film history, and I don’t need a chewing out by Beau Brown over what I get wrong.

Beyond even the miniature work and the craftsmanship and work of the puppeteers on the films, you can see in each of the films in the original trilogy where the FX teams pushed the envelope on multiple levels and worked to set new industry standards. And it was actually very easy to see; especially back in the growing era of cable television and the ever more improving home entertainment systems. In the mid to late 1980s you could turn on the late night programming block or weekend block on the cable channel of your choice and see FX spectacle films from the early years of Hollywood running right up to the release of Star Wars and the FX spectacle films that followed it. You could swing by your local video rental store and grab some classic sci-fi as well as the latest movies and see the difference.

Now, unless you were a huge film geek or a wannabee filmmaker, you weren’t actively studying this, but you really couldn’t miss the change in the look of film from before Star Wars vs. after Star Wars. In a way, especially if you were a film geek, the Star Wars that hit the big screen in 1977 became after the passage of time almost a historical document. You knew that the Star Wars that went up on screens in 1977 would one day be taught in film classes in much the same way Birth of a Nation was. It was an example of a film that changed everything that came after it in fairly significant ways.

Then, decades later, Lucas came along and declared his intention to change the original trilogy. He had become enamored with the wonders of CGI, and he had declared his desire to recreate the original trilogy in his new CGI vision.

A lot of fans took a bit of a disliking to this. There was a lot of grumbling about how scenes now felt overly crowded with random CGI things moving about in the background simply because he could put them there. Fans groaned at the Jabba the Hutt scene added back into the first film that had become unintentionally comedic because of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail. Fans practically revolted over the idea now nixed by Lucas that Han shot first. Some fans complained that it was just odd seeing these scenes they knew so well not looking the way they remembered them anymore.

I agreed with a lot of that. But what got me was Lucas making the declaration, even if he eventually sort of backed down from it, that his new vision trilogy was now the only Star Wars that existed in his mind and it would be the only Star Wars seen in theaters, sold in stores, or aired on TV from that day forward. Star Wars, so he proclaimed, was his, and he would do whatever he wanted to do with it whenever he felt the need to tweak it and update it to match his vision for it.    

I had two problems with this attitude. As I said above, Star Wars was practically a historical document if you were a film geek or a wannabee filmmaker. It was a film that changed the visual look of the industry, and there was a feeling that it needed to continue to be seen. So long as generations of people could continue to see it and compare it to films that came only a few years before and after it, they could easily understand how groundbreaking the film actually was in many ways. But if Lucas had had his way as he had stated his intent, this aspect of it was gone. Star Wars would be largely nothing but a 1990’s CGI spectacle, indistinguishable from the films of a decade none of the original films were actually from.

Explaining the impact of the original Star Wars would have become like explaining Jodorowsky's Dune to people. Maybe they would understand it on an academic level, or maybe they’d never get it until someone came along with a documentary about the “lost” Star Wars. But even then, if anyone were to have done that, it would still be largely lost as fewer people would see such a documentary than would watch the films, and no average length documentary was going to include all of that footage.

But maybe worse than that was the way his declarations of ownership to do as he pleased came off as selfish. Not merely selfish with regards to the fans as many before me have stated, but selfish in other ways.

Sure, Lucas was absolutely correct when he said he owned Star Wars and could do whatever he pleased with it. He owned the rights, it was his baby, and he was the primary force behind getting it made. But the thing here is it also wasn’t only his. He didn’t make it alone. All of those groundbreaking and revolutionary FX achievements were the product of teams of men and women working their asses off. People poured their hearts and souls into creating things that made everyone from the average movie goer to the biggest Hollywood bigwig sit up and take notice.

There was a small army of names who put everything they had up onto that screen in 1977, 1980, and 1983. There was a small army of names who put blood, sweat, tears, and dreams into everything we saw so as to raise the bar that had been set before their work by no small measure. More than a few people probably pulled their hair out trying to figure out how to create the way they needed to shoot what they eventually got rather than let the previously established limitations on such FX work shots be their limitations. These scenes were as much their property, their legacy to the business, as they were those of George Lucas. And Lucas, even if not actually using those words, declared that he didn’t care about that. He was more than happy to flush the visual history of their legacy to the industry down the drain because he saw and fell in love with some shiny CGI.

All the other stuff that gets discussed, the new scenes not looking right, Han shooting second, the overall horrible nature of the prequel trilogy, bothered me to some degree, but not as much as the attitude Lucas held about the films. Yeah, they were his, but it seemed shortsighted with regards to film history and selfish to both fans and- especially –the people who created the visuals of the original films to throw all of that out because of his moon-eyed infatuation with his new trophy wife, Mrs. CGI.

I’ll give Lucas his due as fast as anyone else. We will always owe him a debt of gratitude for what he gave pop culture and geekdom, and not only with Star Wars or Indiana Jones. His overall vision shaped ILM, and ILM shaped the look of movies, movies of all genres, for decades. If Lucas and then Lucas and Spielberg hadn’t given us creations we so deeply and dearly loved, we wouldn’t have been as pissed off as we were with their later treatment of those creations. There’s no question that if Lucas was removed from genre and pop culture history, both would be noticeably lesser than they are now.

But I’ll also say the Lucas we owe that debt of gratitude to was a younger, different Lucas than the one we started seeing later. The Lucas who announced to the world that Star Wars was his to do whatever he wished to do with it all the way up to the Lucas who whined and cried after the fact about the end results of his own action of selling Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion came across more as a man who had started believing his own hype, as an egotist buying into the myths of his own legend.  

It’s kind of sad to see the artist behind the art you loved slowly change into someone you really don’t care all that much for. I’d love to cut him some slack, and was actively working at doing so not long ago, but then he made his ‘White Slavers’ comments and that went out the window again. I’ll always hold most of his accomplishments in high regard, but, no, I’m probably not going to get over my problems with the public persona Lucas keeps presenting to us; especially if he keeps making statements along the lines of his more recent ones.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange. 

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