Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Storyteller or Salesman?

The theatrical release of the animated Star Wars film The Clone Wars may have turned the mainstream media forever down path to the Dark Side of the Force. To (intentionally) misquote a little green Jedi: resentment leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to...backlash.

Anyway, this piece, from The Washington Post (
August 10, 2008, page M01) concerns George Lucas and reads (in part):

"He may go down in history as American cinema's master mythmaker, but George Lucas still can't tell a story.

Three years after concluding the epochal "Star Wars" franchise and very publicly retreating to his sprawling Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., to make "my own little movies," Lucas has reverted to form. Earlier this summer, he produced and co-wrote yet another installment of the lucrative but creatively exhausted "Indiana Jones" adventure series. Friday marks the release of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," an animated spinoff that Lucas executive produced and that looks like precisely what it is: a television show that has been puffed up into a feature-length advertisement for itself."

This article doesn't mince words, so nor shall I. These are the messages of the article as I see them:

1.) Lucas can't tell a story. In fact, he could never tell a story (a fact indicated by the author's use of the word "still," meaning that this is a perpetual or long-standing concern).

2.) Lucas promised to make small movies, but reneged (meaning he's a liar).

3.) He just keeps pounding out "creatively exhausted" (meaning bad..) sequels and advertisements for toys.

4.) And uh...he "may" go down in history as a master mythmaker.

Okay. My turn.

What we have here is -- in essence -- the mainstream media's version of the "Lucas raped my childhood" meme. You've seen this a million times in talk-backs and on message boards, only here it's painted with a more intellectual and respectable veneer (and fewer ALL-CAPS!). But this article is no less one-sided than many of those familiar comments. A later paragraph in this article even pauses to diss American Graffiti (1973), an almost universally-admired American film of the early 1970s. Some might even call it a classic.

So what do you think? Does the author have a point? Or is there some bias and resentment coloring this journalism?

Well, it's worth asking, anyway. As for me I am no apologist for Lucas. I do not worship the man. I believe he is fully capable of making bad artistic choices. Whether it's Greedo shooting first, Jar-Jar Binks, Ewoks or a re-run Death Star threat in Return of the Jedi, I am fully capable and willing to criticize Lucas. Do it all the time. But I like and enjoy his Star Wars movies very much. I see their strengths, but I also see that they have notable weaknesses.

As someone with no horse in the race, however, I think this article is a load of poo-doo.. Let's get to the specifics:

1.) Lucas is no story teller. Never has been. Really? George Lucas directed THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars. He provided the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those four film credits alone should settle any argument about whether or not he can recognize or dramatize a good story, don't you think? He could make bad films for the rest of his life, and we'd still have those four great films. That's a lot more success than many film artists get, I might add.

Let's skin the Rancor another way. One measure of a good or successful story is that it survives the passage of time, and translates successfully from one generation to another. Since Star Wars was released in 1977 and is still being debated and watched 31 years later (a generation later...), I would argue it passes that test with flying colors.

2). He promised to make small films and hasn't yet. So he's a liar. Well, yes. This is technically true. Since he finished making Revenge of the Sith, Lucas hasn't released a small, independent film of his own making. But so what?

My problem with the underlying assumption behind this point is that somehow big science fiction films are unworthy. It's an old and insidious line of attack. Why are you wasting your time with that comic-book/TV show/science fiction crap, when you could be making a perfectly respectable movie about gay cowboys eating pudding? (No offense to Brokeback Mountain). Isn't it possible that George Lucas -- in the honored tradition of H.G. Wells, George Pal, Rod Serling, Gene Roddenberry and others -- realized that a science fiction franchise like Star Wars permits him to say the things (to a vast audience)... that a small indie film couldn't? And if Lucas did make a small indie film, don't you bet that people would be calling him self-important and indulgent? People would be yelling at him for not producing more Star Wars. "Because that's what everyone wants to see, not this crap!"

3.) So, Lucas keeps pounding out creatively exhausted crap? Well, I don't like to judge by critical aggregates, but at Rotten Tomatoes, Revenge of the Sith [2005] seems to have garnered support from 79% of reviewers...which is pretty impressive. The so-called "creatively exhausted" Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls garners an equally impressive 77% positive score. A more balanced article about Lucas would have made note, at least, that Indy (which came out the same summer as the derided Clone Wars) was favorably received by the majority of critics. The story isn't nearly so simple as this article makes it. This article wants us to believe that Lucas is just voiding cinematic feces on a regular basis, but it's not that clear cut. A lot of people (myself included), thought Indy IV was pretty damn terrific.

4.) There's no "may" here. Lucas's name is already enshrined in studies of American cinema, and likely will be for the next hundred years. Star Wars inspired a slew of imitators, revolutionized special effects, changed the way movies are marketed, and popularized science fiction. To argue otherwise is to ignore the facts. Would we have gotten Alien without Star Wars? Blade Runner? Perhaps, perhaps not.

So why is Lucas sitting alone on the hot seat here? The simple answer is that the American press loves a fall from grace. And it likes to push a guy on a precipice...over the edge. Some folks smell the blood in the water with The Clone Wars. They've been waiting a long, long time to cut George Lucas (and Star Wars) down to size, and here's that golden opportunity. There will never be a better time.

And why the ire at Lucas for marketing toys, when films like Transformers are actually based ON toys? If this journalist just wanted to make the point that Clone Wars is a bad movie, I wouldn't take issue. If this journalist wanted to complain about the review embargo on Clone Wars and the way it was handled, I'd be fine with that too. But this article isn't a movie review per se. And It doesn't offer much in terms of specific arguments. It just makes sweeping, broad statements about Lucas's whole career. And I think it does so with a decidedly negative, false slant.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:40 AM

    Part of the problem with Lucas and Spielberg is that somethings are done purely for the money. Did the world really need 'Jurassic Park II and III'. The Star Wars prequels were filled with a lot of dull set-up. Sorry, but talk of trade wars, politics, etc wasn't very compelling...to say nothing of Natalie Portman's constipated acting in "The Phantom Menace" (did Lucas tell her to act like a zombie?).