Did you ever have a big project you were working on? Something that just sort of occurred to you one day, but without any serious desire for self-expression—reorganizing your record/comic book/movie collection, redecorating your living room, landscaping your backyard, things like that. My aunt decided to add a room to her house a few years back, and while it looks awesome now, it ended up being a logistical nightmare, and she spent more than a year with a gaping hole in the side of her house. Lots of people who have done major home renovations probably have similar stories, and I’d bet that as proud as they were of the final results, their predominant feeling by that point was more along the lines of “thank god that’s over with!”
The thing you need to understand is, filmmaking is not an art to George Lucas—it has no sacred creative spark, it demands no reverence. It’s a project.
Last Monday, Page Six broke the “story” that Lucas hadn’t yet seen the teaser for The Force Awakens. Your typical fan, of course, has seen it somewhere between five and five hundred times by now, so to many this was confusing at best and damning at worst—and who knew Lucas could even be futher damned in the eyes of his ostensible fandom? Some more charitable fans took it to mean simply that he doesn’t want to be spoiled, but the following muddies that reading somewhat:
“…when we asked Lucas if he was curious to see what Abrams has done with the new ‘Star Wars,’ Lucas said, ‘Not really.'”
I recently came across Mike Klimo’s excellent and eye-opening essay Star Wars Ring Theory, in which he describes in exhaustive detail the many echoes between the prequel and original trilogies—not just the quotes and scenarios we all noticed immediately, but bits and pieces as seemingly innocuous as shot composition, and screen direction, and whether the movie starts underground or in the sky. It’s a great piece of work and one I hope to talk about more at some point, but the most salient takeaway here is that these movies are shot for shot exactly what Lucas wants them to be—each trilogy a giant clock whose gears are meticulously placed according to an elaborate design he, let’s be honest, came up with as he was going, but a design nonetheless.
And it’s important to note that that’s not necessarily a defense of the prequels as art—an impeccable clock can still be hideous if no care is taken with its aesthetics. George Lucas, ultimately, is less artist than artisan. Star Wars is an enormous contraption that he spent three decades assembling, and while it was without a doubt the great work of his life, to him it was still just that—work. I have no desire to hash out the boundary between “arts” and “crafts” here—my definition of the former is pretty expansive, to be honest—but what I’m trying to communicate with this piece isn’t how we should see the films, but how Lucas sees them.
You may notice that down below I’ve tagged this thing under my recurring net-culture series So You Think You Can Internet; that’s because the intersection (or lack thereof) of George Lucas and his online fandom is the real point here. Online fandoms exist in a binary world of perpetual boosterism and haterism; to like something is to love it, and to be indifferent to something is to grow to hate it, because you can’t go on Twitter or Facebook or even your favorite Star Wars message board without being confronted with esoteric Doctor Who memes or people tweeting through Peter Pan Live! or endless babbling about whatever the hell Dragon Age: Inquisition is.
So in that context, we just don’t know how to process Lucas’s ignorance of JJ Abrams’s Star Wars. To not have an opinion on something is to hate it, after all—either directly, or indirectly by choosing to ignore it. But if you don’t live online the way us Millennials do, you’d be surprised how easy it is to miss even something as pervasive as that teaser; in Lucas’s world, he’d have to go out of his way to see it (to the theater at the very least, as he himself says to Page Six), so “ignoring it” isn’t really an issue.
To return to my home-renovation analogy, Star Wars is like an awesome new deck on the back of George Lucas’s house. It’s a huge deck, and he put way more time into it than he went in expecting to, and if you happen to come to a cookout some weekend he’ll be happy to tell you all about it. But is he a fan of it? Not exactly. He loves it like his own child, sure, but it’s just not interesting to him the way it is to fans; he’s not gonna go out there in his free time every night and just stare at it, marveling and how evenly-applied the finish is and debating whether the floorboards complement the railing or vice-versa. Lucas isn’t a Star Wars fan because it isn’t a hobby for him; it’s just a thing he made.
Except that’s not completely true, is it? In one respect, it’s very much a hobby for him, because George Lucas isn’t just an artisan—he’s a tinkerer. The deck was essentially done years ago, but instead of marveling at it, every time he goes out there he’ll notice one of the stairs or floorboards isn’t quite level. And after replacing a few floorboards the finish was no longer consistent, so naturally he had to strip the whole damn thing and do a new coat.
Look again at the plethora of post-release edits to the six films—the bulk of them aren’t in service to the art, they’re in service to the deck: making the CGI more consistent, retroactively inserting characters that hadn’t been thought up yet, and yes, even those goddamned “nooo”s at the end of Return of the Jedi. To Lucas’s mind, saying you don’t want Vader to shout “no” at the end of Jedi is like telling him to ignore a crooked step; maybe it’s not hurting anyone, but you just know he’s not getting any sleep until he fixes the stupid thing.
We’ve all taken on a project that stretched out way longer than we wanted it to. But like lots of great art, some big projects are never finished, only abandoned—and at some point, you’ve got to just sell the fucking house.
9 thoughts to “Why George Lucas is Not a Star Wars Fan”
This is one of the best analogies I’ve read in quite a while. But it does have one shortcoming.
One of the central ideas of fiction is that every story carries a message, that it has a theme and can be interpreted. This is very much part of what makes it art. This is not true for a clock, or a deck.
We still very much place the notion of natural genius when it comes to art higher than that of art as a skill that can be learned. That part of Romanticism never left. George Lucas as a filmmaker very much belongs to the second school because he is clearly a learned filmmaker, no matter how much genius he has had from the beginning.
Now, how is this part of my point? If I say that George Lucas is aware of the message and the themes Star Wars has, then you are probably not going to object. Star Wars is very much a story about opposites (light and dark sides of the force among other things) but it is also a story very much concerned with symmetry. With balancing. So far that the whole goal of its hero Anakin Skywalker being to bring balance to the force. To create symmetry, in other words.
My point here being – the message of a work is part of its aesthetic appeal. Of what makes fiction art. Fiction works on many levels, and different people value these things differently. I would argue that these changes in that way are very much in service of the art, because it strengthens the message. But this is also very much part of a view on fiction that a majority of the critics of the Star Wars prequels does not share.
I’ve read Mike Klimo’s essay, and it made me look at the films again. To reconsider them, not because I didn’t like the prequel trilogy in the first place (I loved it) but because I realised there were so much more to them than I could ever have imagined.
Great response! I guess the only thing I sort of see differently is the idea that Lucas himself has a “message” he intends to communicate. Star Wars’ popularity and endurance are due to the fact that it embodies so many different huge and universal messages—about good and evil, and human nature, and so much else. When the “clock” is functioning at full capacity, that’s what it does—it speaks to everyone in their own way. But I think that’s a by-product more than something Lucas is specifically trying to do.
And of course, the “function” of it is indeed in service to its artistic value; I very much see it that way—I just don’t think he does. I could take an artistic “message” from a well-designed building if I was of a mind to see one, regardless of what the architect intended.
Don’t forget though, that Lucas himself has been very outspoken since the beginning of Star Wars about many of the themes and messages and mythological motifs that he consciously included in the movies–for very specific purposes. After all, as we all know, he was deliberately trying to make a modern myth, or tell an old story in a new way. One of my goals with the ring theory (particularly towards the end) was to reference as many interviews with Lucas as possible so that he could explain the metaphor that is Star Wars.
I am no defender of Lucas because he refused to ever release the originals after making all of those needless changes. But I will defend him when it comes to commenting on anything towards Episode 7. He is in a no win situation: if he gushes over it, he looks like a phony. If he bad mouths it, he looks angry and disrespectful to JJ Abrams. I hope fans leave him alone cause he shouldn’t have to keep giving his views on a movie he is not a part off.
Another great point!
Part of the problem with George’s tinkering habits is what I have referred to as the Restaurant analogy.
I go into a restaurant, like Red Lobster, look at the menu, and order a seafood item. But the waiter brings me a cheeseburger. I protest. “This is NOT the meal I wanted.”
but I am told the Chef doesn’t like what he has in the menu I expect at the Red Lobster. The Chef is “renovating” the food list that I had hoped to enjoy.
Now tell me honestly: Would you really side with the Chef because he’s not satisfied with the menu even though I am?
I wanted what was on the menu. But now everyone tells me that I am just a spoiled Red Lobster fan boy because I complained about the “genius” chef who insisted I deserved a cheeseburger. I am ridiculed and mocked because I am a discerning seafood lover who “lives in his mom’s basement”.
This is why fans have these debates, why we must constantly bicker about “The Menu”, why we argue the prequels (which I, for the record, enjoyed very much). Because the Chef insisted on changing an already placed menu, and never apologizes. If anything, he becomes even more entrenched in his need to serve cheeseburgers at Red Lobster. And in any other medium or business, we would all be against such a poor practice of this nature.
I know, I know, there are people who are rude, bashing trolls in the fandom, and that is unfortunate. Some may not feel my analogy counts here, and that’s fine.
I say this with the greatest respect to Lucas and those who like his decisions to mend the crooked step. We need to remember that Star Wars is not just George’s to do with as he pleases. It is also a product, we are customers, and we do deserve at least some consideration. If we don’t want “No!” at the end of RotJ, then I think it’s valid to say the film isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing.
“But what I’m trying to communicate with this piece isn’t how we should see the films, but how Lucas sees them.”
You know, and that’s what I find really fascinating. It’s actually one of the reasons I wrote the Star Wars Ring Theory. I wanted to explain as best I could how Lucas designed the six movies and the meaning he was trying to express. In other words, how Lucas sees the movies. Which, let’s be honest, is very different than how most Star Wars fans and critics see them. I even thought that it might help all of us better understand and appreciate what Lucas was doing.
But I do think that Lucas is a Star Wars fan. It’s just different for him. After all, with all of his movies, he was using the medium as a vehicle for self-expression. Even with Star Wars, Lucas was using both content and form to communicate ideas and themes and express emotions. So, inevitably, he’s going to feel different about the films than we are–especially when he chose to “let go” of the franchise and when other people are doing them. I’m not suggesting that one kind of fan is better or worse than the other. It’s just different. Plus, he’s got a wife and new baby now and a museum to open. 😉
I’ve been thinking a lot more about this recently though. Because we do have to remember that Lucas is a very different kind of filmmaker than the kind most of us think he is. During his formative years, he was going up to San Francisco and already falling in love with the abstract films that were part of Canyon Cinema (He was influenced very much by the filmmakers that were part of the avant-garde scene at the time). At USC, he was making very experimental, non-character, non-story films. And I think a lot of people don’t realize it, but those same sensibilities are reflected in all of the Star Wars films. I don’t know, maybe too many of us, critics and fans alike, just don’t care about that kind of stuff. Or maybe we get too hung up on the deliberate creative choices that Lucas made that don’t align with our personal tastes (e.g., the use of “pre-method” acting in the movies).
Anyway, I’m rambling. I do want to thank you again though for the shout out and I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts on the ring structure.
Oh, one last thing: I actually think the Vader “Nooooo” for the Blu-ray was a nice touch. While there were a lot of complaints about Lucas’ penchant for on-the-nose symmetry (linking it to the “Nooooo” at the end of Sith), I would argue that not only does it make the saga a more cohesive whole (as do many of the changes), but more importantly, it’s really meant to echo Anakin’s “Nooooo” during the Mace Windu/Palpatine scene in Episode III–when Anakin must make another destiny-defining choice. The Luke/Vader/Emperor scene and Anakin/Mace/Palpatine scene were designed to correspond to each other. I think Lucas was just making the connection that much stronger.
I spent 4 years in the Seminary, living in the dorms. There were theological conversations that you have when you first show up in Seminary. My first year, I loved these – they were new and exciting. My second year, I was a wise, older student able to give insight. (My third year I was off on internship). My fourth year, I returned to the dorms, and when all the little new Seminarians were talking up a storm and asked me my opinion, I could care less.
I’d been there, done that, over that.
Lucas has been there, done that, over that.
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