Friday, July 20, 2012

The People Vs. George Lucas

The People Vs. George Lucas (2010)
Dir. Alexandre O. Philippe
Starring George Lucas, Nerds upon nerds, the guy who did that shot-for-shot remake of INDIANA JONES, Neil fucking Gaiman whaaaat? A couple of guys who worked on “South Park” for some reason, Gary Kurtz, and did I mention nerds?

    Yes, it’s come to this. A documentary entirely devoted to the subject of 30-to-40-year old men (almost exclusively men) talking exclusively about their personal reaction to George Lucas’s artistic output of the past 15 years or so. You might as well call it INTERNET: THE MOVIE. But believe it or not, it somehow avoids the obvious trap of becoming the world’s most visually documented bitch-fest, and approaches a subject which is always lingering on the outskirts of this topic like a Star Wars fan at a frat party: the relationship between the artist, the art, and the people who consume that art. I know, right? Fucking Lucas.

    OK, I can’t lie. Nearly everyone interviewed in this documentary is a fanboy, and as such it’s impossible to get around a certain amount of bitching and/or nauseating nostalgia. But in this case, it’s actually in service of an interesting point: STAR WARS, for whatever reason, got to people in a way basically no other movie ever has. It got to them in such a way that they internalized it, made it part of their identity, made it part of their artistic lives and creative drives. Nobody seems to know quite why. But it got to them, and it became part of them, in ways which range from the subtle to the obsessive. And one thing they have in common is their fixation goes beyond watching the six STAR WARS films -- they’re driven to create their own films, their own art, their own costumes, their own weird rituals. They don’t merely consume; they actively interact with the films and the Star Wars mythology that has built up around them.

    But here’s the thing: George Lucas doesn’t necessarily like that. For whatever reason, he’s very clear that it’s his universe, his decisions. He has the final say in what is or is not canon. Having been burnt by studio interference in making THX 1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI, he became as fixated as his fans are on making sure he had complete creative control, that he was the lone artistic voice which would define his saga. STAR WARS, as he sees it, is his baby, his burden. He’s got to be true to his own artistic voice and make it his way.

    And I think we can all pretty well agree that he fucked it up.

Oh, the Jedi are gonna feel this one.

    Nah, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m just getting sucked into the mindset of these ninnies in the film. I actually like the prequels. But still, it should be evident to even the most casual observer that the prequels have some major, fundamental problems. As great as many parts are, there are other parts which would be embarrassing in a Sy-Fy channel original movie. The scene in EPISODE I where Anakin asks Qui-Gon about Midicholorians may well be the single worst constructed scene I’ve ever seen in a motion picture, on literally every imaginable artistic level. It’s a spectacular, catastrophic, gut-churning nightmarish failure of writing, acting, directing, set design, photography, editing, music, and probably catering and craft services too. I mean to say, it’s bad, the nerds are not wrong.

    But you know, I think the actual quality of the film itself isn’t the problem. If Lucas had just churned out his version of JOHN CARTER, I think most normal people would agree that it was a perfectly fine movie. But I bet most of these nerds would still be mad.

    THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS postulates that the real problem is that Lucas is a modern artist in an increasingly postmodern world. He imagines himself as a filmmaker making pieces of art for people (kids, he says, not entirely convincingly) to watch and enjoy. But these fans don’t see it that way. They see themselves as part of a perpetual exchange between the creator of a world and the people who want to play in it, reshape it, make themselves as much a part of it as it is part of them. That Lucas seems to reject this exchange between creator and viewer is taken as a very personal, galling slight. Lucas simply thinks he’s an artist, and it’s not only his prerogative but his artistic duty to be guided by his own unique vision. But the fans see it as more of a communal sandbox, something owned by everyone who loves it, which should by all right have room for them all create and shape as they see fit. That they’re being ignored and in some ways undermined by the creator of all this is a deeply personal attack coming from something they strongly associate with some deep, primal emotions. And it makes some of them fucking crazy.

    Now it’s easy to sit here and make fun of these bearded middle aged men, some of them sporting grey-flecked hair, sitting in front of shelves full of STAR WARS toys and seriously discussing the question of whether or not George Lucas raped their childhoods. For example, I’m doing it right now. But the film legitimately poses the question of how much any one artist can really be in complete control, in an artistic world which is now firmly rooted in a constant exchange between the parties that create the art and those that experience it. In fact, it suggests, the distinction between creator and viewer is itself beginning to blur.  How else do we account for the literally hundreds of pieces of fan art depicted in the movie, ranging from crude reenactments to elaborate animated sequences to a cornucopia of other media. Whatever it is that motivates them to create, they all seem to agree that Lucas has deliberately minimized their ownership in something they thought they all shared. As much as they try to contribute to the phenomena which has so profoundly impacted their lives, Lucas just seems to simply grip the reigns tighter, occasionally seeming to be deliberately adversarial with his own fans. The irony of a Hollywood outsider making a film about defeating a tyrannical dictator and then becoming one himself is most assuredly not lost on these folks, and --it must be said-- not lost on Lucas either, who so often has seemed deeply uncomfortable with his transformation from nerdy auteur to CEO of a multimedia empire.  

If LOVE EXPOSURE is any indication, this guy is probably the most well-adjusted person on this Japanese subway.

    The documentary might be stronger if it probed a little deeper into who these fans are and how they ended up this way. I mean, I love STAR WARS myself. It connected with me from my earliest childhood; I had the toys, I watched the Prequels at midnight, just like these guys. But somehow I never ended up feeling like Lucas was sadistically trying to take away things which were important to me. Did these guys just internalize it more than I did, or what? Why this particular demographic? Will fans of the future be just as invested, or is it something that could only happen to a generation of young boys in 1977? In fact, there’s a telling bit near the end where they interview young STAR WARS fans who don’t differentiate between the prequels and original trilogy, like Jar-Jar Binks, and seem to completely be vibing on Lucas’ much-derided vision, to the visible chagrin of the old guard. What does this mean about them?

The movie isn’t interested in probing that topic*, and it’s kind of a shame because after awhile their criticism starts to seem a little superficial without the kind of context you’d need to understand where they’re coming from emotionally, and why this is such an incredibly charged issue for them. Still, its commentary on the social phenomenon of STAR WARS fandom and its implications to the ever-evolving messy world of postmodern artistic exchange is worth suffering through a little fanboy babble. And --crucially-- the whole film is brisk, energetic, and sometimes howlingly funny, giving these doofuses room to occasionally laugh at themselves while still taking the issue seriously. In other words director Phillipe has pulled off something close to miraculous: making fanboy culture not only interesting, but entertaining. That’s tantamount to alchemy, probably achieved with some form of witchcraft, and ought be worth a couple of dozen Nobel Prizes if there’s any justice in the world. Which obviously there’s not. Fucking Lucas.

*Although it does go on a few interesting tangents to Europe, South America, and Asia to find other fans who are no less obsessed, but who articulate their obsession through different sets of cultural artifacts.

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