I believe all art is autobiographical - emotionally, if not literally. I also believe that an artist can create a movie, novel, painting, play, poem or song and later, become that thing. Maybe they'd intuited that's where they were headed, and that's what made them create it. Maybe their creation grew so big that they couldn't contain it and it swallowed them. Maybe it's something else. But it seems to me that that's what's happened with George Lucas and the Star Wars trilogy.
Lucas used to be Luke Skywalker. Luke/Lucas. Pretty clear connection, right in the names. Luke describes his home saying "If there's a bright centre to the universe, you're on the planet it's farthest from." Lucas hails from Modesto, CA. In the biography Skywalking: the Life and Films of George Lucas, he's said to have alluded to the place vaguely when asked where he was from. Luke's passion was piloting. The teenage Lucas' was hot rodding. Watch American Graffiti. Hot rods and classic cars cruise up and down the main drag and Lucas showers them with the camera's loving gaze like a playboy feasting his eyes on a woman's body. Luke longs to prove himself in the bigger world. So did Lucas. He left Modesto and studied film at USC, excelling immediately.
Lucas started making feature films very soon after graduating, and soon enjoyed a prominent place in a community of colourful young renegade filmmakers. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, John Milius. It's easy to see them as "the rebellion," defiant of the old, crumbling Hollywood studio system, making movies in new ways, often breaking the rules and succeeding brilliantly. Coppola was a bit older than the rest of them, and had some feature films under his belt already. Lucas has admitted Coppola was the basis for Han Solo. Check out this quote (and see if you can tell if it's describing Han Solo or Coppola):
"He is one of the best. He's outwitted the empire on numerous occasions, and he has made some very fast deals. One of his problems is that he gambles quite heavily and that's where he loses most of his money. He's tough and sharp, but never manages to scrape together enough to get any power… He's slightly self-destructive and he sort of enjoys being on the brink of disaster… You might meet him and he may be worth ten billion dollars and the next time you meet him he's in debt up to his ears."
Like the rebel alliance's victories in Star Wars: A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, these filmmakers took on the establishment, the big boys, the System, and, armed with their talent, innovation and idealism, won the war. They changed the game. The Godfather (lasting three hours, with Marlon Brando, dismissed as a has been at the time, in the title role, and an unknown Al Pacino in the lead) broke box office records and then swept the Oscars. Two years later The Godfather Part II did the same thing. American Graffiti featured no known actors at all, and played in the theatres for two straight years, instigating a massive revival of 50s culture. Jaws has been credited with creating the summer blockbuster as we know it. And Star Wars: A New Hope crept in stealthily, with a cast of unknowns and established (but obscure) British veterans, in the minority interest genre of science fiction, with a treatment and script turned down by one movie studio after another, and with a symphonic score instead of anything contemporary and guaranteed to sell, like disco or electronic music. It hit the moviegoing public and the movie industry like a planet sized explosion, sending out a shockwave that's still rippling ever outward, somewhere in space.
The films' message is about the power of the human spirit over technology. The documentary From Star Wars to Jedi: the Making of a Saga points out the irony of using unprecedented technology to deliver such a message. Luke won, not because he could use his equipment better than anyone (although that certainly helped), but because he reached out with his feelings. Lucas won, not because he was so brilliant with visual effects (although that certainly helped), but because he used them to tell a timeless, compelling story. He took Joseph Campbell's template of the hero's journey for his script structure, and the movie spoke to something deep and ancient in the human psyche, especially the young male psyche.
Star Wars changed everything. Lucas retained merchandising rights to the films, which the studio had granted without a second thought. No studio made that mistake again. The demand for toys was so unexpectedly strong for Christmas 1977 that Kenner didn't have any to sell. Again, not a mistake many would make again. Audiences were captivated by the innovative technical effects, many of them pioneered by Lucas and those working for him. Special effects have been a mainstay of blockbusters ever since, often a bigger draw than the stars or the story. Ever since Star Wars, behind-the-scenes featurettes about the creation of the special effects have been popular too.
Star Wars turned into a massive industry and spawned a subculture. Toys, posters, novels, role playing games, video games, comics, memorabilia, conventions, cartoons, symphonic tours, stage adaptations. There are people who've glommed on to "The Force" as their religion. Anyone looking to find websites discussing, examining, dissecting, debating and trading obscure trivia on all things Star Wars could apply themselves to the task full time and not run out before dying of old age. Every scene from the films has been uploaded to youtube many times, reframed, dubbed, recut, satirized or commented on lovingly. Kevin Smith has his characters discuss nuances of the trilogy in Clerks, and, well, most of his other movies too (with cameos by Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). Joss Whedon created the cult hit TV series Firefly, and the accompanying film Serenity as a pretty clear nod to Han Solo. The trilogy has been elaborated and excellently spoofed on Family Guy, Robot Chicken and 30 Rock. The characters have become part of common culture. Everyone knows what R2-D2 sounds like. Everyone knows Darth Vader is Luke's father.
Somewhere along the way George Lucas turned into Darth Vader. He does what he wants, when he wants, how he wants to. He's remote, inaccessible, mysterious, and frighteningly powerful. In the documentary Empire of Dreams: the Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, he admits to having turned into what he never wanted to become: the man. He'd aspired to be an independent filmmaker, an outsider, always doing his own thing and shaking up the system. But since success came in the magnitude it did, he's made his films with massive budgets, always working with major studios. The limitations of low budgets and uncooperative crews and inadequate technology that dogged and challenged his early efforts (including Star Wars: A New Hope) are no longer a part of his life. No one says no to George Lucas. Computer generated imagery lets him insert anything into any frame of his movies. Like Darth Vader, he has all the technological advantage in the universe.
He's become fascinated, perhaps obsessed, with technology. In the 90s he touched up the Star Wars trilogy digitally, and added computer generated set dressing, background characters and in some cases entire scenes he hadn't been able to complete before. He even changed the moral dynamics of some scenes (a google search will lead you furious reactions of the "Han shot first" scene in the Star Wars cantina). He eschewed collaborating and wrote and directed the Star Wars prequels alone. They're replete with digital backgrounds, digital vehicles, digital characters, all of which look like they belong in a video game. A Jedi's capacity to come in tune with the Force was explained as an abundance of "Midi-chlorians" in one's bloodstream. Technology, technology, technology. Mediocre movies, full of bright lights and eye candy, totally short on story, humour and heart. The only lasting impression they've made in the culture is the universal hatred for Jar Jar Binks. Lucas tainted the Indiana Jones movies as well, producing the astonishingly abysmal Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. His movies are heralded by ubiquitous merchandising on the sides of Pepsi cans (sitting in actual size R2-D2 ice coolers) and Lay's potato chip bags.
Lucas doesn't hear the complaints the fans and critics level at him. He shrugs off bad reviews, saying the original films were poorly reviewed too, so who cares. He dismisses complaints about the forced childish humour, saying the movies are for kids, and always were. He soldiers on, tarnishing the mythology he'd created for so many, like Darth Vader's villainy blacking out any heroics he'd achieved as Anakin Skywalker.
Given the powerful mythic resonance the original Star Wars trilogy created for a generation of men, it's not outrageous to say that Lucas has "fathered" millions. Those millions now despair to see the corrupted version of the hero they'd ardently worshipped for so long, and cringe in anticipation of how he'll further diminish the mythological world he created with such earnestness and purity of vision once upon a time. Is there anything to be done? Are we destined to cower under the shadow of Darth Lucas?
No - there's a new hope. Lucas is working on an as yet untitled Star Wars TV series, of which very little information has been released. It's said to take place between episodes II and III, and possibly will chronicle the varied adventures of bounty hunter Boba Fett. They've got fifty-some scripts ready to be filmed, but the production is on hold.
Ah, but what if one his "sons" - Kevin Smith, perhaps, or Seth MacFarlane, or Joss Whedon were to be brought on board as a collaborator. Someone who wrote good dialogue. Someone with a strong sense of story. Who liked working with actors. Who understood that a high speed flying vehicle chase or a light saber fight only means something if it's furthering a good story.
What if one of these abandoned sons were to work with him on this new series. It'd be difficult. Darth Vader ain't so great with give and take. But if they retained faith that there was still humanity in him somewhere - buried deeply, but still there - maybe, just maybe, they could awaken that humanity.
Lucas would then see his work of the last twenty-five years in a new light. He'd lift the film canisters of the prequels above his head, and throw them into a bottomless shaft, where they'd disintegrate in a mighty explosion.
And perhaps this TV series would emerge as an enterprise of passion and emotion. With stories that gripped you. With twists that made your jaw drop. With characters you could believe in. With humour that came from the chemistry between the actors. With dialogue that got the science fiction jargon and exposition out without bogging down the narrative.
If this show were to be all of these things, crowds of fans who've accustomed themselves to lowering their expectations and being bitterly disappointed anyway would be overcome with delight and zeal and pour out in the streets, all over the world. They'd topple the statue of the old, corrupt Lucas. They'd throw streamers into the air and wave their arms about. They'd dance with fuzzy little bears all night. They'd celebrate the love.
Celebrate the Love!