Thursday 14 August 2014

The People vs George Lucas (2010)

Director: Alexandre O Philippe
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
One of the most unconventional documentaries on film, The People vs George Lucas isn't successful at all it aims to do but it's an interesting ride nonetheless and it's only going to become more relevant over the coming decades. Right now, many of the arguments that director Alexandre Philippe hauls out of the nerd forums or convention panels to which they've long been relegated are, for the most part, only about Star Wars, details that only the most dedicated fanatics really care about. Yet, as technology progresses and a wider set of filmmakers, distributors and copyright holders continue precedents set by George Lucas, this will become a much wider issue. It's already becoming a much wider issue and these arguments will only become more relevant and more important to mainstream culture and the ongoing fight to preserve it for the public domain. In many ways, Philippe is documenting the easy to discount tip of an iceberg that will over time become a serious danger to how we interact with culture.

The biggest problem his film has is that it's far from impartial. It's not really propaganda, but it finds itself unable to stay in the middle ground because there is no middle ground. There's the side of the public, the consumers, the creators of culture and then there's the side of the corporation, which exists only to make money off art. Before Star Wars, when George Lucas was an auteur filmmaker, shooting features like THX 1138 and American Graffiti, he was on the same side as us. He was a lucky film nerd who got to play with the biggest and best electric train set of them all, to paraphrase Orson Welles, which is Hollywood. After Star Wars, however, he gradually became the thing he most hated: he became the corporation. In 1988, when Ted Turner was releasing colorised versions of classic black and white films, Lucas testified to the United States Congress to push for legislation that would preserve cultural artefacts like films so that the public, who eventually owns them, would continue to be able to see them as they were intended.

He was lucid and convincing. 'A copyright is held in trust by its owner until it ultimately reverts to public domain,' he outlined. 'American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history.' He even went so far as to suggest that, 'People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians.' Yet his words weren't heeded, nor were the words of many of his esteemed colleagues. While the US did eventually recognise the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, it did not apply it to movies because of the collaborative nature of their creation. Therefore, ironically, his failure to persuade the American government to protect motion pictures is the only reason that he was then able not only to fundamentally change the Star Wars films but also to suppress their original versions, thus effectively changing history. Unfortunately, George Lucas only appears here in archive footage. He is not present to put his new case against his old self.

Like the Star Wars films, it's phrased like a trilogy. The first episode, A Nerf Herder from Modesto, is by far the most conventional, outlining where Star Wars came from and how George Lucas got to that point. It's also the least substantial, skimming the surface to get through the material quickly. Where it starts to find validity is in explaining how and why the first Star Wars movie was fundamentally different from anything else that had come before. To do so, it casts its net particularly wide, hauling in writers like Joe Haldeman and Neil Gaiman; the editor of Empire and the director of Troops; fans from Spain, Japan or the UK; a very wide range of interview subjects indeed. The key, it appears, is the unprecedented merchandising, which transformed it from merely a feature film into what Henry Jenkins describes as 'participatory culture'. The clips from fan films and productions, old and new, obscure to Star Wars Uncut, are another plus point, as they all serve as a substantial underline to the point that Philippe is making.
Unfortunately and inevitably for one short segment in an hour and a half feature, it merely scratches the surface. I'd like to have seen more than teasing frames of Lucas's early short films. I'd like to have seen a good deal more than one line of dialogue about his relationship with Francis Ford Coppola. I'd like to have seen more about his struggles with the mainstream studio system and his part in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, but that's a different movie. It seems fair to forgive Philippe for avoiding a detour into territory that deserves its own documentary (and has it, in the 2003 adaptation of Peter Biskind's excellent book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls). However, on the flipside, he can't then get away with extending his sweep of Star Wars fan films into Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. I'm very thankful to him for making that production known to the world at large, me included, but it stands out as footage that should have been better used by more to the point material. It's far from the only instance of that here too.

If there's material in the first section that seems superfluous, that's not the case with the second. When Philippe introduces the New Edition of A New Hope that Lucas released to theatres in 1997 in The Great Tinkerer, the aptly named second section, things get very serious very quickly and The People vs George Lucas suddenly finds itself. While the archive footage Lucas pushes this as what he'd always aimed to do but didn't have the money twenty years earlier, everyone else in the film unites in opposition. Many are on board with the updating of the special effects or the fleshing out of backgrounds with new technology, which is what the publicity for this anniversary edition pushed, though others highlight how disrespectful this is to the original artists who won Oscars for their special effects work in 1977. However, the publicity didn't mention other changes and that's when the united front forms. 'The other versions will disappear,' Lucas said in an interview with American Cinematographer magazine and everyone hated him for it.

Every since that release, the fanboys have debated the pointless new scene to introduce Jabba the Hutt and decried the change that Han no longer shot first. The mainstream public laughs at this stuff, what an interview subject calls 'super nerd nitpicking over something that's not important.' But it is important. As another retorts, 'It's not geeky nitpicking when you go into the heart of a character and you do something that changes that character's dynamic. That's destroying story. That's betrayal.' I was especially taken by Steven Vrooman, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Lutheran University. His take is that Lucas made a fan film, where he's uniquely the fan of his own work. In changing his own material, 'George Lucas took away your sandbox, he took away your colouring book and said, 'No, no no! It belongs to me again and I'm going to continue to rewrite my stories.'' Many comments stand out here like, 'It's going to take the edge of Star Wars and make it a safer, dumber place.' In other words, it's revisionism.
And here's where the film really ceases to be The People vs George Lucas, it becomes 1988 George Lucas vs 1997 George Lucas and all the many interview subjects who speak for The People are redundant. If the man himself testified to Congress to stop people like he would become doing what he would go on to do, we really don't need the reinforcement. I enjoyed it anyway, of course, because Philippe edits down crazy amounts of hours of footage to golden nuggets like, 'Thanks to Lucas, VHS is still alive.' One speaker here gloriously underlines the disconnect between the law and the moral high ground by explaining that fans created digital files from laserdiscs and released them for free online. 'Certainly this is illegal,' he points out, 'but from a moral standpoint they are preserving our cultural heritage.' And with a Lucasfilm letter stating that the original negatives were destroyed to make the New Edition, Philippe wisely quotes 1988 Lucas citing this precise future. 'Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten,' he testified.

This second section is so strong that it deserves to be its own documentary. In fact, it deserves to be this documentary, but it's sadly only a small part of it. It especially deserves to be this documentary because the discussion in how this shift in Lucas's morals happened leads to a natural conclusion, the matching bookend to the one that began the story with his early days. We see here that the change in his outlook coincided with him becoming the Man, the Machine, the Corporation he always hated. Rather than keep his burgeoning career as a massively important filmmaker going, he instead turned into 'a producer, an entrepreneur', 'the evil genius of marketing', the end result of what happened when 'the storyteller went away and the businessman took over.' We've now seen Lucas's story arc, his rise, his success and his fall, echoing Anakin to Vader, but Philippe has a different structure in mind that really prompts the beginning of a new documentary. His pivot, almost to the second, is the announcement of The Phantom Menace.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the second half of this film, especially the early parts that accompany the insane hype that surrounded the release of Episode 1. It's tough to imagine anything that underlines the success of Star Wars more than people lining up around the block to buy tickets to films they don't care about and that they won't even watch, only so that they can see the two minute trailer to The Phantom Menace. That's as eye-opening to me, writing in the age of YouTube, as the realisation that back in 1977, an underestimation of demand meant that fans bought empty boxes that would be populated by action figures later when the toy companies actually caught up with production. It's frankly hilarious to watch those who travelled from continent to continent to see Episode 1 being asked in line, 'What are you going to do if the movie really sucks?' That it wouldn't was a given, an article of faith. People were seriously going to enjoy a moment that they would be able to tell their kids about. How's that going now?

There are moments of substance in Revenge of the Geeks, about how people went back to see Episode 1 time and time again to come to terms with their abuse, to convince themselves that they had somehow missed a point first time around or to desperately hold on to the possibility that they might just come to like it, but mostly it's fluff compared to The Great Tinkerer section. In fact, the best parts of the second half emphasise or enhance it. Talk about Jar Jar Binks and racial stereotyping, mitichlorians and the shift from spirituality to biology, those sorts of slaps in the face pale when compared to the talk about control, like Lucas stating in interviews that he doesn't want anyone else messing with his stuff. What Philippe achieves here is to remind us that even The Star Wars Holiday Special should be preserved, as it isn't merely George Lucas's history, it's Jefferson Starship's, Art Carney's, American history. And George Lucas himself testified as much to Congress. Perhaps Philippe should have made a real trilogy.

George Lucas's testimony to the United States Congress in 1988 is preserved online with some context, at Saving Star Wars, an important site in the fight to preserve culture.

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