We stand fixated on the man who directed Star Wars.
Why? The reasons are beyond number and impossible to mention in geek company without causing a riot: the special editions, the prequels, the re-edits. The betrayal and heartache as thousands of fanboys and girls took up the cry “Han shot first!” We’re furious. We’re mourning. We’re hoping that the next generation doesn’t think that Anakin Skywalker is cooler than Han Solo. And in the middle of it all, there’s George Lucas, telling us that everything he did made the films better. That what we really needed was Gungans, a Max Rebo band with backup singers, and Ewoks that blink.
But we all want to believe that people are reasonable deep down, so we try to understand. To figure out why George doesn’t care that his original audience is crushed by what he’s done to Star Wars, despite the fact that even Steven Spielberg recently copped to being wrong about changing E.T. in a similar fashion. (He still defended Lucas, like he always does.) But no matter how we try to parse it out, George Lucas’s motives are an utter mystery, which in turn creates a surprisingly strong feeling of betrayal.
To start, something mind-shattering:
“People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society.” —George Lucas circa 1988
Wait, what? George Lucas said that? George-just-let-me-release-it-one-more-time-so-I-can-make-C-3PO-a-french-maid Lucas? Okay, I know someone is raring to point out that calling Star Wars “art” would make a lot of art critics in the world very angry. Let’s not go there, and decide for the sake of this argument to define what Lucas created as “pop art.” I think that’s entirely fair, and pop art is certainly not without value. (If we thought it had none, we could never appreciate something so brilliant as Andy Warhol’s take on a Campbell’s Soup can.) So Star Wars is pop art, and George has been doing to it exactly what he claimed was “barbaric” over 30 years ago.
Yes, it’s his work of art, but you know what, Tchaikovsky thought that The Nutcracker Suite was vastly inferior to his Sleeping Beauty ballet and practically no one in history agrees with him. So saying that the artist has a perfectly objective vision of what they create is like saying that parents are perfectly objective when they think of their children: it’s not psychologically possible. And there’s a reason why it’s good to grow up—you can’t keep allowing your parents to shape you as a human being. You need to grow and live on your own without their interference.
So, in a manner of speaking, George Lucas has become the overbearing parent of a child star: he tells them how to dress, screens their friends in interrogation rooms, schedules their every move. He can’t let go. He’s convinced his baby could be so much better if he could just keep changing its shoes. Its haircut. Its mannerisms. And pretty soon that baby won’t be recognizable to the world anymore, but he clearly doesn’t care. He needs to keep control of it.
But having that control can lead to some pretty strange results. Take Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Now I personally enjoy that movie in many respects, but there’s no doubting what a hot mess it is. One of the key places where it goes off the rails is the villainous cult and how they sacrifice their prisoners: ripping out their hearts before lowering them into a pit of lava. Here’s what George had to say on that account recently:
“I was going through a divorce, and I was in a really bad mood.”
When asked if he intended to make such a direct metaphor, he admitted he did. Whoa. That’s one way of channeling your grief.
The fact is, George Lucas often seems to take an almost childlike mentality into his work. It did well for him in the past; the first time Star Wars was screened for some friends, this is what Steven Spielberg said:
“That movie is going to make $100 million, and I’ll tell you why—it has a marvelous innocence and na?veté in it, which is George, and people will love it.”
Now, Spielberg was completely correct in one sense. That innocence and na?veté is a large part of what makes the first Star Wars film so enchanting. But then, The Empire Strikes Back has stolen a lot of people’s hearts for portraying a much darker side to the Star Wars universe, and that innocence frequently makes George Lucas sound completely out of touch with reality as we know it. Take his latest defense for the Han-doesn’t-shoot-first scenario; according to him, Han never shot first in the cantina and it was confusion in post production that made it look as though he did. Even though there is substantial evidence elsewhere to indicate otherwise, George is insisting that we shouldn’t believe what we’ve seen for years because we’re taking it the wrong way:
“The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo, in Episode IV, what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t.”
Oh, George. You know what, I don’t think Han is a cold-blooded killer. But he is in a very dangerous profession where he frequently interacts with some of the most disturbing criminals in the galaxy, and he’s not stupid. Greedo was going to make good on his threat, and he just couldn’t let that happen. It was self-defense—and we know that Han Solo is all for self-defense. That’s why he almost packs his bags and leaves at the end of the movie.
At the end of the day, it seems as though every change George makes is just a way of saying “I know better than a studio exec. I’ve always known better.” It’s no secret that he had trouble starting his career because the studios slammed a lot of doors in his face. The theatrical release of THX-1138 didn’t go over well, and when buddy Francis Ford Coppola told George that his problem was neglecting to emotionally involve the audience, it was reported (in the excellent film history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) that George’s response to him and his own wife Marcia was:
“Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck. I’m gonna show you how easy it is. I’ll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.”
So he made American Graffiti.
And it helped him out quite a bit, gave him the clout he needed to make Star Wars. But Lucas never forgot how difficult the studio made it for him to do what he wanted in the film business. The Star Wars saga gave him the success he needed to do exactly what he always wanted to do—stick it to the man:
“Changes are not unusual—I mean, most movies when they release them they make changes. But somehow, when I make the slightest change, everybody thinks it’s the end of the world. That whole issue between filmmakers and the studios with the studios being able to change things without even letting the director of the movie know I’m very much involved in that [so that’s not happening here].”
Basically, George has turned around and made the studio system his justification for going back and editing anything he wants. Those heartless men in their Hollywood suits took something precious from him, denied his right to true ownership, and now he’s taking it back inch-by-CGI-saturated-inch. And the fans who are reediting the films themselves, rearranging the prequels so they make more sense, or knocking out those ridiculous “Noooo“s, well, he’s got news for them:
“On the Internet, all those same guys that are complaining I made a change are completely changing the movie. I’m saying: ‘Fine. But my movie, with my name on it, that says I did it, needs to be the way I want it.’ “
Which is, of course, just another way of saying “they’re my toys and I’m the only person who knows how to play with them properly.”
And that’s not a nice thing to say to the people who made your little empire, who paid for every brick and microchip that line the gold-paved road to Skywalker Ranch. We want to love you, George. You created our collective childhoods. What we can’t understand is how you never seem the realize the sanctity of that. Then again, you don’t even seem to understand the how people connect with each other, much less how they bond with and over a work of art.
We know Star Wars means more to us than it does to you, the man who reportedly hated talking to actors until he directed the prequels, who wanted to replace people with effects in his youth and has nearly achieved that goal. We don’t need Boba Fett’s voice to sound like his retconned father’s—that’s not why we loved that over-armed bounty hunter. We don’t need to see Hayden Christensen’s ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi—he’s not the person who Luke held as he died. You’re taking away the moments that reverberated in us, the little bits and bobs that made a silly popcorn film so damn special. And you have the gall to act above it all when you do it.
“Well, it’s not a religious event. I hate to tell people that. It’s a movie, just a movie.”
Then why do you need to keep coming back to it? It’s not Homer or Milton or even Dante, we all know that, but couldn’t you make an effort to protect it from the ravages of time?
I suppose this line from a recent interview with Oprah should tell us all we need to know:
“Don’t listen to your peers, don’t listen to the authority figures in your life—your parents—and don’t listen to the culture. Only listen to yourself. That’s where you’re going to find the truth.”
That brand of myopia is painful to hear, because it means that a creator who we piled so much love and admiration onto was never really worthy of those sentiments. That he is, in fact, resentfully dismantling something beloved, and in the name of… truth? A truth that he can’t be bothered to share with the rest of us? Movies are supposed to be made for people who watch them, but George has obviously forgotten what business he’s in.
Some people will claim it’s still all for money, but that seems a little unlikely these days. The man has all the money he could ever wish for, and then enough left over to by a private island someplace where he’d never have to hear us whine about Jar Jar Binks ever again. But he still wants to make movies. Artistic ones now. He has the money for it on hand and all the time in the world:
“The area I’m interested in now is to go do some form-experimenting—to try and figure out different ways of telling movies. I grew up in the Godard, Fellini world and all that. To me that’s where my heart is. But I realize that’s not commercial. That’s why I can say I managed to do something that everybody wants to do—all those guys wanted to do—which was to get a pile of money so I can sort of waste it, burn through it.”
Coming from a man who’s sense of “innocence and na?veté” rivals no other, who can imagine what those films will be like. It’s doubtful that George cares if anyone goes to see them either, considering his general disdain for the audiences who attend movie theaters, particularly the ones who liked his work from the Before Time.
That feeling of betrayal lingers, and no one is going to get over it. This fight will rage for decades, and maybe then we’ll be having it with the kids who grew up on the Clone Wars cartoon, who can’t get their heads around what’s making those old timers so upset. But that’s not what rankles. What keeps us coming back to the Lucas-bashing watering hole over and over is that we believed he understood how Star Wars made us feel. That he knew he had created something singular and was grateful for our part in it, all of us, the disciples of his odd little religion. But we’ve been thrown out of the Jedi temple and directed toward the violent commercial lights of downtown Coruscant without so much as a “May the Force Be With You” to ease our suffering.
So the real question ultimately becomes: where’s my “Lucas shot first” t-shirt?
Emmet Asher-Perrin still isn’t sure why people who are redeemed from the dark side of the Force need to be young’n’hot ghosts. Maybe it makes them feel better in the afterlife? You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.