By George! Defending Lucas (Part 1)

January 22, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

Note: This was originally designed to be a single post but, by the time I finished writing it, I realized it was too long to be reasonably read in one sitting. So I'm splitting it into two pieces. Part two will be posted in about one week.

By now, I think my position regarding George Lucas is well established. (The last time I wrote about him was in September 2011 around the time of the Star Wars Blu-Ray release.) It's not a popular perspective among may of the die-hard fanboys whose hyperbole knows no end. He's destroyed film. He raped their childhoods. He's the embodiment of all that's bad about Hollywood. It seems the more obsessive one is about Lucas' creations, the more one hates the creator. It's almost Oedipal. My assertion in September 2011 was that the less rational fans believe they have a sense of ownership and entitlement where Star Wars is concerned and they think they should have a voice in its development and representation. That is, of course, bullshit.

It amazes me how vitriolic some of the anti-Lucas tirades have become. As recent as 15 years ago, this man was revered by nearly everyone (except the group who cling to the fallacious notion that Star Wars ruined cinema). It's not just a matter of intelligent complaints and criticisms aimed at his work; many anti-Lucas posts are vicious personal attacks from people who have never met the man. It's easy to cast aspersions when one is cloaked in anonymity. Here's a challenge to those who want to spew poison at Lucas: Do it under your real name. Don't hide behind a fake username. If you're going to attack someone, have the balls to do it in the open. Anything else is cowardly.

Lucas is in the news this week because of Red Tails, a movie he has been trying to get off the ground for more than two decades. No, he didn't write the screenplay or direct it, but he had a hand in developing the story and selecting the director. He did a lot of supervisory work. And he financed the entire thing himself. This is very much a George Lucas film, in the same way that The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are George Lucas films. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Lucas indicated he is retiring. This will be his last mainstream feature. (Time will tell whether that's accurate - he said much the same thing in 1983. It took him more than a decade to get back to Star Wars, but he eventually did.) Red Tails isn't projected to make much of a box office splash; I wonder how many potential viewers are aware of Lucas' involvement. (The marketing campaign has been abysmal, possibly because 20th Century Fox has nothing invested in its success or failure - they're just a distributor.)

The more I read the attacks on Lucas in blogs, forums, and comment areas, the angrier I become. You'd think the man was Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot all rolled into one. The negativity is so unbalanced that one has to wonder where it comes from. Why do people hate so much? So once again I sit in front of my keyboard to type a defense of George Lucas. Not because I agree with everything he has done over the years - in fact, I have a share of criticisms, starting with his blasé and dismissive attitude toward the devotees who elevated Star Wars to more than a movie and brief pop phenomenon. But because, as a businessman, filmmaker, artist, and human being, he deserves better.

As a lapsed Star Wars fan, I have solid credentials. Granted, I haven't revered the movies since about 1980, but the affection lingers. (By the time I saw Return of the Jedi, I was more into Star Trek than Star Wars.) It's like an early love. You may not marry her or even keep in touch, but you always remember your times together with warmth and nostalgia. In the late 1970s, I had close to two dozen action figures. I had records, posters, bed sheets, towels, magazines, comic books, and models. I spent insane amounts of hard-earned money on packs of trading cards, trying (and succeeding) to get every card for all three series. I penned fanfic (or at least as close as an 11-year old can get to fanfic). For a period of about two years, I lived and breathed Star Wars. It ended, of course, but I still get a little shiver when I hear the John Williams score as I see the opening crawl - just as I did in 1977 and 1978, when I watched it twice during its opening run and twice more during its (first) re-release.

There are three primary charges leveled against George Lucas that I intend to discuss. Many will disagree. I would hope the rebuttals will remain calm and civil but that may be a vain plea. At any rate, here are the complaints: (1) Lucas' constant tinkering with the original trilogy and his resistance to making the movies available in their original theatrical versions, (2) the prequels in general, and (3) his perceived marketing rapaciousness and money-grubbing.

If there's one thing that pisses some fans off, it's that they can't obtain pristine copies of the original trilogy in Blu-Ray. Chapters IV, V, and VI are readily available, but only in versions that have undergone a variety of tweaks and changes, a few of which are liked, some of which are tolerated, and several of which are despised. Lucas tends to view those movies as "works in progress" and wants the version of record to be the latest one. By all accounts, he has finished tinkering and has moved on (the 3-D copies, due to be released over the next six years, are purportedly identical in content to the Blu-Ray releases).

There are two arguments against Lucas' philosophy and approach. One is that he has no right to alter classic films. I would agree that he has no right to make changes to It's a Wonderful Life or Citizen Kane, but Star Wars is his baby. Cursed with perfectionism, he's trying to provide the ultimate cut while strengthening the ties between the original trilogy and the prequels. Also, it's worth noting that, taken in context, the changes are minor. Greedo shooting first. A CGI populated Mos Eisley. Han meeting Jabba. No more "Yub Yub." Vader screaming "Nooo!" To those not steeped in Star Wars lore, these things pass unnoticed. The essence of what the movies were, are, and will be remains the same; all the things we love about Star Wars are unchanged. Some argue they cannot watch the Special Editions without being pulled out of the experience by the alterations. Fair enough, although that criticism says more about the viewer than the material they are viewing. If that's the case, they're not really immersed. I'm perfectly happy watching the original trilogy with all the bells and whistles. This isn't New Coke. It's still pretty much the Star Wars I loved as kid. I do not need an exact replica of the 1977 print to re-live the 1977 experience. We can argue about whether the Special Edition changes improve or degrade the experience but, considering the modest number of scenes impacted, it's a silly argument.

Time also to put the "authorship" issue to rest. Some argue that while Lucas has a right to "deface" Star Wars, Empire and Jedi should be hands-off because he did not direct them. They were officially helmed by the late Irvin Kershner and the late Richard Marquand, respectively. At some point, Lucas had intended to direct the sequels but two things held him back. The first was a sense that he was taking on too much (this would lead to post-Jedi burn-out) and the second was an ongoing feud with the DGA over the Star Wars credits. By their own admissions, Kershener and Marquand were "George's caretakers." They viewed the movies as being very much Lucas' and were pleased to have been able to contribute to the franchise. Marquand died ten years before Lucas made any changes to Jedi but Kirshner admitted he had no problems with any of the changes made to Empire. Bottom line: Just because Lucas wasn't officially credited with directing Chapters V and VI doesn't mean they aren't his films. He was intimately involved in every step of the process. His money, his characters, his story, his passion. Auteur theory does not apply here.

Some members of the anti-Lucas brigade argue that, although Lucas has a right to make changes, he has a responsibility to preserve the original cuts and make them publically available. They bristle when he states that the Special Editions are the only officially sanctioned versions of Star Wars and accuse him of trying to rewrite history. Nothing could be further from the truth. The untouched original trilogy was made available multiple times on VHS and laserdisc between the mid-1980s and 1997. It was also released in a non-anamorphic laserdisc transfer on one of the DVD sets. No, Lucas hasn't lavished the same care upon their presentation as he has upon the Special Editions, but that's only to be expected. But he's not "hiding" the theatrical versions. He's not doing everything in his power to recall them. And it's known that, after the painstaking restoration project that saved them from oblivion, he has preserved not only the film elements but also digital copies. There's little doubt that future generations will have access to these should they desire them, although in my experience it's not the younger fans who are clamoring for pristine Blu-Ray copies of the unaltered releases.

Widespread disappointment regarding the prequels was fueled in large part by unreasonable expectations. I have never been able to discern what fans wanted from these movies. The story was established before The Phantom Menace reached theaters; it was just a matter of seeing how things played out. I like all three of the prequels, and would not change the star ratings I gave them. Subsequent viewings have resulted in my changing opinions about a few things, but those are mostly minor. I believe the fan community at large undervalues and underrates these productions. There are things to criticize about the prequels. Jar-Jar Binks tops the list. Also, some of the acting is pretty bad, but that was also true of Star Wars. Lucas is not a good director of actors. However, while Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman do credible impersonations of pieces of wood, Ewan McGregor is on his game and Ian McDiarmid is fantastic. While watching all six movies back-to-back in story order, I was impressed by how well the prequels add to the overall mythology. The original trilogy works better with this background fleshed out. The Luke/Vader dynamic has higher stakes, the Leia "revelation" does not seem as sudden, and the Emperor's involvement in Jedi is better motivated.

Some fans never gave the prequels a chance and some were so disillusioned by The Phantom Menace that they were predisposed to dislike Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It's hard to appreciate a movie when you're primed be disappointed. It's one thing, however, not to like a movie. It's another thing to spew bile about it. Reading the attacks on Lucas during the six-year prequel cycle is a depressing experience who anyone who wants to be optimistic about human nature. No wonder he has sworn off making Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. Who would want to go through that again?

For those born after 1995, the prequels are widely regarded as successful. I don't know any kids who hate Episodes I, II, and III. (Some actually like the prequels better because of the more sophisticated special effects.) Younger viewers tend to regard "Star Wars" as a reference to the six film cycle, whereas many older fans think of it as encompassing only Episodes IV, V, and VI. My perspective is that we should be thankful to Lucas for giving us the prequels, imperfect though they may be. For a long time, it looked like we weren't going to get them. And, if we can't appreciate them, at least our children can.

Here's a link to Part Two.