What’ I’ve Learned From George Lucas

24 Oct

I’m taking a break from politics this week to talk a bit about Star Wars, mainly because I am sick of politics and Star Wars never dealt with that, unless you count the taxation of trade routes, which is obviously a thorny issue that requires much discussion and….AHHHHHHH!

Okay, got that out of my solar system.

George Lucas used to be a god. He created the pop culture touchstone of my childhood. I wanted to be a writer and moviemaker mainly because of what he had crafted. Star Wars and its two sequels were explosions of creativity that quite frankly have not been equaled since. The world that Lucas created is as complex, alive, and as fully-realized as Narnia or Middle Earth.

And then he did the prequels. There are many who thought Lucas had become a traitorous nerfherder, or that he had lost his mojo, gotten old or gotten soft. The prequels are not that good. They’re not awful, they’re simply highly-disappointing. I’m not a hater and actually find parts of those films entertaining.

So, did Lucas lose his mojo, get old or get soft? What had changed within him? Furthermore, why do some artists go into decline? Francis Ford Coppola made two Godfathers, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, and now he makes this:

Now, I have a friend at my job who is as geeky as I am about sci-fi. Sometimes I run ideas by him over our morning coffee.  It’s really just me talking about a new idea and him saying, “Jake, that doesn’t make any sense.”

He’s my De-Stupidifier, the person who I can throw any idea at and get an honest response. “No, you can’t do time travel that way, Doctor Who has already done it.” “People are smarter than that, don’t talk down to them.” “What about wizards? You definitely need more wizards.” Stuff like that.

Many creative people have De-Stupidifiers. They are the ones we trust to read our work before we show it the world. We trust them not just for their opinions but for their temperaments. They neither try to sugar coat negativity, nor do they relish giving us a harsh review.

De-Stupidifiers are our editors and agents, our spouses, parents and children. They are our filters and muses.  Creators need these checks and balances because we live in a constant state of tunnel vision; we can latch onto an idea and never fully realize how incredibly moronic it is because it is ours and therefore it has to be good. We can never completely see our creations from an outside point of view, so we need to go out and find outside points of view whom we trust for their taste, judgment and thoughtfulness.

This is contra to the philosophy of the Ayn Rand character Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, who subscribes to the idea that an artist acts alone and should take no input or advice from outside sources; that others’ opinions will only corrupt and compromise the artist’s singular vision.

Ayn Rand – as usually – is full of bullshit. No man is an island, even crazy artists. As a writer, no matter how careful I am about self-editing and reading my work with an objective mind-set, I still need others to set fresh eyes upon my writings and tell me if something doesn’t work. I don’t always take their advice, but I always listen and respect their opinions.

The problem is that Lucas, as far as I can tell, didn’t have De-Stupidifiers for the recent films. It’s as if he trusted his own vision so much that not only did he refuse to listen to critiques, but actively turned a deaf ear to all constructive criticism.

Maybe after all the years and money and power, no one has the guts to stand up to him. Maybe he surrounds himself with yes men. Maybe he assumes others are always wrong, and that no one can fully understand his creation as well as he does.  

***

So, not knowing when something sucks is one thing. But there is another issue writers face: knowing when something is good enough.

The problems with the new Star Wars films are one thing, and signify that Lucas can’t filter the crappy from the not-so-crappy. But what Lucas has done with his “remastering” of the original trilogy is another thing entirely, something many old-school Star Wars fans consider sacrilegious. Beginning with the DVD re-releases in 1997, Lucas has put out four different versions of the original trilogy. In them he has added scenes that were originally cut (and rightfully so), incorporated CGI creatures into the backgrounds of scenes, added CGI establishing shots of various locations, replaced actors from the original films with the ones who played them in the prequels, all of which has stirred up a modicum of nerdrage. Here’s a complete list of the changes.

There are literally hundreds of modifications he made to the original trilogy, so many that most are not even noticed by the casual viewer. There are bits of visual clean-up, sound equalization, minor mistakes that are corrected. I have no problems with any of these because, as I said, we don’t notice them. It’s when you add whole scenes, or digitally alter exiting ones to make them “better” where I begin to howl like a Wookie in heat. Here’s Lucas’s philosophy about the differing versions of the original trilogy:

There will only be one. And it won’t be what I would call the ‘rough cut,’ it’ll be the ‘final cut.’ The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, ‘There was an earlier draft of this.’ The same thing happens with plays and earlier drafts of books. In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned

Lucas, like many artists, lives in a bubble. He doesn’t understand the effect his creative output has had upon fans. I love Star Wars, warts and all. There are some dreadfully wooden lines spoken by some even more wooden actors. Much of the original special effects look cheesy by today’s standards. Empire Strikes Back – considered the best by many – suffers from a poorly executed sense of humor. Return of the Jedi has Ewoks. (Side note: I actually like Ewoks.)

But despite all of the mistakes in these films, they have imprinted themselves upon us. And when you change something too noticeably, we feel like we are no longer watching that which we once loved.

What makes these constant changes  even worse is his decision to not have the originals available on DVD or Blue Ray. We are stuck with that stupid fucking Jabba the Hutt scene. This is Orwellian self-censoring. At some point there will be people who do not know about the original movies, people who will always think that Greedo shot first.

Though George Lucas is not one of them, apparently.

The original movies were manifestations of their time, and they should always be remembered that way. Those X-wings are models, not CGI. And they still look good. (Note to all FX geeks out there: computer generated images aren’t real; models are, they have actual physicality; they will always look better in my book.) Mistakes were made, but who cares? The original trilogy made a gazillion dollars and are beloved by literally billions of people. They have inspired countless writers and filmmakers. They are part of our cultural heritage. I am a member of the Star Wars Generation, a group of kids who grew up with the ability to quote those movies verbatim.

So, with all that being said, I ask George Lucas to tell me once again: what is so wrong with these three films that you need to always be fixing them?

***

And now let me defend George Lucas, slightly.

See, I get it. I’m a writer. And I am currently revising stuff that at some point in the not-too-distant future will be put into book format.  In fact, today I am alternating between writing this post and revising a passage from my book. It’s a good section, may even be very good, but isn’t quite…perfect. And so I change a comma to a semicolon, then to a period. I substitute one word for another. I move a sentence a little further down. Then I write a bit about George Lucas. After that I go back and realize that the changes to that one fucking paragraph didn’t quite work, and I go at it again.

Revising is a like Xeno’s Paradox, no matter how much I do it, I never feel like I will ever be “finished.” I can rework the same line over and over dozens of times and never find the perfect combination of words that says what I want it to say in just that very exact way.

But not finishing is not an option. Hemingway wrote 39 different endings for A Farewell to Arms. But in the end he finished it, sent it to his publisher and started on something new.  He couldn’t keep agonizing over a word that didn’t work or a misplaced comma. At some point he simply said, “I’m done,” drank a Pernod and shot an elephant in his pajamas.

Lucas, like other artists, is a perfectionist. With new technology he is able to rewrite the history of his own creations and make them more like what he thinks he thought he originally wanted. But there is no such thing as perfection, and therefore, perfectionists like Lucas have embarked upon a Sisyphean task, one doomed to be forever incomplete.

Lucas has fallen into a rather ironic trap that many writers and artists discover during their journeys: on the one hand he has no filter to remove the crap from his new work, on the other he is in constant revision-mode when it comes to something that is both good and finished. If only he could switch those two mentalities around Freaky Friday-style.

A few years back, Steven Spielberg re-released E.T. with a couple of added scenes. Since then he has recanted, saying:

For myself, I tried [changing a film] once and lived to regret it. Not because of fan outrage, but because I was disappointed in myself. I got overly sensitive to [some of the reaction] to E.T., and I thought if technology evolved, [I might go in and change some things]…it was OK for a while, but I realized what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T. […] If I put just one cut of E.T. on Blu-ray and it was the 1982, would anyone object to that?

A few weeks ago a crisp new Blue Ray of Jaws was released. Guess what they replaced that clunky mechanical shark with.

They didn’t.

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