Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it."

I recently read a fascinating book about the Star Wars phenomenon, titled How STAR WARS Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. Written by journalist Chris Taylor, the book traces the history of Star Wars, not as purely a “making of” story, but as a cultural phenomenon. It’s a terrific book that I reviewed on Goodreads, but I wanted to revise and extend those remarks a bit.

This book is one of the most even-handed accounts of Star Wars and the work of George Lucas that I have read. There isn’t much axe-grinding here, which I greatly appreciate. Taylor is interested in just how this thing called Star Wars came to be one of the dominant pop-culture forces today, tracing the influences that led a young George Lucas to think more and more obsessively about his “little space movie”, and then tracing its own influences on those who came after and showing some of the many and surprising ways that Star Wars has enhanced and influenced the lives of several generations of fans, geeks, and whatever else has come afterwards.

Star Wars started as one movie that wasn’t even supposed to be 20th Century Fox’s big picture for 1977, but it became an enormous force, as everyone knows. It is certainly, along with Star Trek, likely the single biggest influence on my creative life, and it’s inspired an astonishing amount of activity over the years, from comics to music to books to fan films to cosplayers, some of whom have organized into the largest amateur costuming group in the world after the Society for Creative Anachronism. All that, from the imagination of a filmmaker from Modesto, California who only became driven to succeed after he nearly died in a car crash in his youth.

From my perspective, the best parts of the book are those that home in on George Lucas’s creative process. A lot of ink and a lot of pixels have been deployed over the years in discussing Lucas, many times in derision. What emerges in this book – and in others I’ve read, such as Rinzler’s wonderful Making of... books for each of the original Star Wars films – is a man with a deeply non-linear creative process. Lucas’s approach seems to be to generate ideas by the dozen, and then mix-and-match them in various ways until something coherent begins to emerge. Sometimes his earliest ideas are set aside only to return many years later, and sometimes his early ideas stick around through most iterations of story.

The genesis of Star Wars, as it went from being an enormous and ungainly thing bogged down in dozens of names and jargon terms, was a very messy process, and it’s always amazing to me to see the long litany of notions that came and went. There are ideas that Lucas entertained in 1975 that would not show up on film until thirty years later (such as the planet Utapau, present in the earliest drafts of Star Wars, when it was called The Star Wars, and which would not actually show up on film until Revenge of the Sith). In this way, Lucas reminds me of some favorite artists of mine, like composer Hector Berlioz, who would think nothing of using a melody in an early work and then using it again many years later, if he felt that he still had use for it.

The messiness of Lucas’s storytelling process stands at odds with things he says later about his own process, which is something that a lot of people have used as a source of criticism. Lucas is often thought to have promised a nine-episode Star Wars saga back in the days of the Original Trilogy, but his actual statements were that he had written an enormous story and then cut it in half, resulting in the Original Trilogy being the second half; the seventh, eighth, and ninth episodes were only conceptual in nature. This seems to be partly true, but Lucas didn’t so much cut an original story in half as he kept reducing his focus. The “Star with Episode IV” approach seems to be more emergent than intentional, which is not a bad thing.

Here, from the book, is just such an example of one of Lucas’s old ideas resurfacing much later on:

The moment Lucas decided to add a kind of rational, scientific component to Jedi knowledge of the Force, in Episode I – the infamous “midi-chlorians,” microscopic organisms that are supposed to help the Force bind to living beings – long-time fans revolted. It didn’t matter that, as Lucasfilm protested, the midi-chlorians are not supposed to be what the Force is actually made of – just a biological indication of its presence. If you dig deep enough into the Lucasfilm archives, you’ll find Lucas talking about midi-chlorians as early as August 1977. “It is said that certain creatures are born with a higher awareness of the Force than others,” he said during a role-playing exercise designed to help him flesh out Star Wars concepts after the original movie. “Their brains are different; they have more midi-chlorians in their cells.” This didn’t matter either. What fans actually want, it seems, is as little detail as possible. They want twenty-eight words, and nothing more.”

The twenty-eight words Taylor refers to is the simple description of the Force given by Ben Kenobi in A New Hope, and nothing more. Without rehashing the whole midi-chlorian thing, it’s certainly interesting that Star Wars fans seem to want to leave things open and mystical and unexplained in a lot of cases. They certainly stand in contrast to, say, fans of JRR Tolkien, who want as much detail as humanly possible, to the point of learning to speak fictional languages and developing their grammars beyond what Tolkien created. (I still maintain that the midi-chlorians are not a category error but a storytelling one. Their existence adds exactly nothing, story-wise, to the Star Wars saga.)

This book also provides some evidence in favor of an oft-cited notion, that Lucas functions best when he has a strong voice to tell him “No.” By the time of the production of the Prequels, Taylor describes Lucas as so revered that literally no one goes against him in any way at all. I’ve never been totally convinced of this, and I’m still not. Producer Rick McCallum doesn’t come off terribly well, being shown as mainly a yes-man, but still: Lucas brought in script help for all three Prequels, in acknowledgment of his own weaknesses in the writing department. (Which are, in my view, a bit overblown.) Taylor’s own negative opinion of the Prequels stands, but to his credit, he does give voice to some pro-Prequel voices, and he acknowledges that they are not the irredeemable films that many have deemed them. (I’d rather he hadn’t even mentioned that awful Red Letter Media guy at all, though.)

Taylor seems fairly bemused, in the closing chapters, by the fact that Star Wars fandom has only strengthened over time, even in the face of three Prequel films that are, shall we say, less than beloved. As the book closes, Lucas has sold it all to Disney, but even then he was starting to knock around ideas for Episodes VII through IX, the ones he had previously said he’d never do. One ends up wishing that George Lucas would simply come out and admit that Star Wars has been his life. That wouldn’t be so bad a thing, would it?

Ultimately, Taylor’s book does a wonderful job of tracing the growth of Star Wars in our cultural life, and he also shows how it came to utterly dominate the life of its creator, a complex man whose own skills, great as they are, were not always a match for what was in his head. I’m grateful for the book’s portrayal of a George Lucas who is flawed genius, instead of a hack who just happened to get lucky a couple of times. I hope Taylor gets to revise the book in five or six years, once the Saga again stands complete. Unless, of course, Disney decides to fire up production on Episode X in due course....

1 comment:

Jason said...

Sounds like an interesting book. My own view of George, as I've no doubt said before, is that he is a complex man whose biggest failing was revealing himself to be a flawed human being with creative weaknesses instead of "the Great Maker" we grew up believing himself to be.

As for the notion of the saga being complete in a few years... my own personal hunch is that it never will be. I think Disney will continue to extend the brand for as long as audiences remain interested, following more or less the same model they're using for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The original core characters of The Avengers -- Iron Man, Cap, Thor -- are aging out (or their contracts are winding down), but we're already seeing indications that new characters are going to rotate in to replace them (Spiderman, Black Panther, etc.), and I suspect something similar will happen with Star Wars. The emphasis may shift away from the Skywalker family, but the series itself will continue, in some form.

What I personally am interested in is seeing is how (and whether) Lucas' reputation and that of the original six films is going to be re-evaluated after we have half a dozen (or more) Disney-era Star Wars films to compare against. The "Lucasian era" (as I'm already thinking of it) may come to be seen as a golden age, when Star Wars was one artist's vision instead of a focus-grouped corporate extrusion.

Or maybe not, the way our society seems to be so hellbent on denigrating anything older than a presidential term.