Sunday, 4 May 2014

The People vs. George Lucas: The Problem with Fandom

I completely missed writing something last year for May the Fourth and so I’ve made sure to prepare something for this year. It was a bit challenging to find what I should talk about but I settled on watching The People vs. George Lucas documentary and it sparked enough thoughts and commentary to make up a whole post.

The movie was directed by Alexandre Philippe, a lifetime Star Wars fan (aren’t we all?). It presents a discussion between the conflicting aspects of the franchise, particularly the love/hate relationship many fans have with Star Wars to a degree, but particularly with George Lucas. The movie is structure in such a way as to present a brief history of Lucas’s career up to the release of the first Star Wars movie. It then used interviews with a wide variety of people including writers, several people in the film industry, comedians, journalists and fan-submitted videos from the movie’s website. These various interviews were edited into what I thought was a poorly structured look at Star Wars, its fans, and the difficult relationship with Lucas. There are some very interesting ideas that are brought up in the movie but ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere. In the end, the movie’s message to its viewers is that Star Wars is great, Lucas has deeply hurt us all and we feel pretty betrayed, but we hope there will be more Star Wars goodness in the future. What follows is my attempt to restructure some of the ideas from the movie, add in my comments, and try not to upset too many of the more sensitive (emotionally sensitive, not Force-sensitive) fans.

George Lucas – Duality of the businessman
One of the elements that start off the discussion from the movie is the duality inherent in George Lucas. As one person explains, they believe Lucas’s psyche is structure similarly to a Russian doll. On the onside there is a Lucasfilm, the corporation. Inside of that is Corporate Lucas. Inside of that is Lucas the Capable Filmmaker. And inside of that is a young, enthusiastic Lucas Filmmaker. That’s not quite how I see it. I think it’s simpler than that, but it does shed some light on how Lucas’s fans see him. He’s a complex and contradictory figure.

The way I see it, Lucas is internally conflicted by two aspects of his life. The first is his creative persona, the one that initially allowed for the creation of Star Wars. The second half is his business savvy persona, which also allowed for the creative success of Star Wars. During the early part of his career, Creative Lucas (that’s what I’m calling him now) has to defend his creativity and artistic vision against company executives and producers. These early battles were very difficult for him and I believe they’ve affected his development as a filmmaker. The success of the original trilogy, which I believe was made possible by the combination of Creative Lucas and Business Lucas, freed him from ever having to battle it out with a producer ever again and that’s what led to the fractured Lucas we all know now. Before, when he had to fight with his producers, both parts that make up Lucas were working together against an outside force. After Star Wars, the outside force was more or less absent and without a common enemy both sides started to fight against themselves.
"Advance and destroy all laser disc copies of the theatrical release!"

Fame and success have changed how Lucas feels about creating. He’s had serious issues with the lack of control he had in his early career. He had to fight for it and when you have to fight for control, you need to pick you battles. Having to struggle with producers and production company executives meant that Lucas had to fight to implement the creative ideas he thought had more potential. Since he’s escaped that type of creative environment, he’s been on his own. He no longer has the outside filter he had before. Wanting to have all the control has left him with too much control and many, many internal conflicts over various creative decisions on the franchise.

Fandom – Imitating the Duality of the Creator
Is this was betrayal looks like?
Some of the biggest fans of Star Wars are also some of the meanest towards the creator of the franchise, George Lucas. They can be huge assholes with him for rather small and petty reasons. Fans of Star Wars have been engaging in participatory culture for several years, if not decades since the release of A New Hope. They don’t simply consume Star Wars, they contribute to the development of the franchise while also acting as disciples who spread the word and share it with new fans and create new generations of fans. This participatory culture has created group of fans who enjoy pocking fun at the thing they love or re-enacting it for their enjoyment. There are countless projects that can be found online where fans are simply having a good time. Some fans are also using these projects to develop their own filmmaking or special effects skills in the hopes of becoming filmmakers someday. I like this portion of fandom. It has fun, creative, and positive aspects to it. Playing in the Star Wars sandbox has acted as their training wheels in a way. Lucas has influenced an entire generation of creators. Watch any documentary on Star Wars and you’ll have interviews with film industry professionals who started their career in filmmaking because of Star Wars.

However, there are other fans whose time engaging in participatory culture has led them to develop a penchant for remixing the beloved franchise. In essence, they’re remixing Star Wars to suit their preferences. It’s unclear why this practice originated but it’s as much a part of Star Wars fandom as dressing up as favourite characters when attending conventions. It’s pretty clear that some of this remix attitude is the result of Lucas’s crusade to shove his Special Edition version of Star Wars down the throats of unwilling fans. On its own that would be an unfortunate desire on the part of Lucas but it’s even worse if you’re familiar with a bit of film preservation history.

Early in his career, Lucas was a main proponent against the colourization of black and white films. He would argue that colouring black and white movies went against the creative visions of the people who originally worked on the movie. It was disrespectful. He also presents arguments that preserving films in their original appearance was a way to preserve cultural history. He went further in stating that the reasons why he thought it was important to preserve our culture history. You can easily find plenty of information on this part of Lucas’s life online. It actually makes for a rather interesting read.

Older George Lucas always looks sad. Even sadder
than young George Lucas. You can see the regret
in his eyes. Tugs at my heart strings, it does.
These earlier arguments made by Lucas seem to contradict the release of Star Wars: Special Edition in which Lucasfilm did several revisions, changes, additions and tweaks to the theatrical release version of the original trilogy. That in itself isn’t a necessarily a bad thing. After all, it’s the creator tweaking his own work with the intent of having the finished product more closely resemble his artistic vision. I’m ok with that as long as the original work is still available. For the most part, it’s not, and that’s what’s problematic for me. Lucas has been attempting, and as far as I know continues to attempt, revisionist history. By refusing to continue to produce and sell the theatrical version of Star Wars, he’s not only disrespecting everybody else who worked on the films, he’s being disrespectful of our shared cultural history. The Star Wars of 1997 isn’t the same Star Wars people saw back in 1977. Lucas isn’t only being hypocritical, he’s being disrespectful to fans and the people who helped make the Star Wars films.

The problem though is that certain fans continue to allow Lucas to do as he wishes because they continue to support him throughout all of the various releases, his new films, and basically anything else that has the Star Wars brand name on the product. Fans will buy it. There is a moment in The People vs. George Lucas were a fan lists all of the different VHS and DVD versions of Star Wars he’s bought over the years. In essence, it was all of them. When discussing the release of The Phantom Menace, there is a scene in which a journalist asks two fans “What are you going to do if the movie really sucks?” To which one of them answered “I’ll go see it again.” That’s part of the problem! Why go see a movie you don’t like? Why financially support the man who is responsible for producing the movie you thought sucked? It’s a vicious cycle in which fans complain about the changes being made but continue to pay to watch it or own it. Nobody is forcing you to be a ridiculous, all-consuming fan. I have some distance between my love of Star Wars and how much money I spend on it and that allows me to continue to love the franchise and not lose my mind or get insanely angry at Lucas.

The remix culture allows for fans to continue enjoying Star War by taking out or changing the parts they don’t like. Perhaps without realizing it they continue to support a franchise that no longer reflects what they like. They’re taking the good and taking out the bad in order to be able to enjoy the good. I think it’s an unhealthy approach to entertainment consumerism because it’s symptomatic of radical fanaticism. Do you really love Star Wars if you’re changing it to better suit what you think it should be? When you’re watching the fan-edit of The Phantom Menace, are you still watching The Phantom Menace?  I’m interested in seeing how fans will react to the new trilogy being worked on by J. J. Abrams. I know that part of me will enjoy some of it even though I’m also pretty convinced I won’t enjoy parts of it. There are a few reasons for that but I won’t get into them hear aside from mentioning that I’m worried about what Abrams will do with the franchise simply because his first Star Trek film is about the only film or TV series by him that I’ve enjoyed. The other thing is that there appears to be as much importance played on looking back as there is looking forward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it can lead to self-indulgence and lack of narrative progression. We’ll wait and see but really, other fans’ reactions is something I’m looking forward to. The discussion of the franchise’s future as well as the pervasive remix culture leads me to another point of contention among fans, what exactly is the “true” Star Wars?

Is this awesomely ridiculous book
"true" Star Wars? Hells yes it is.
The “true” Star Wars?
I’m curious as to why George Lucas is so adamant in having his vision be the only “true” Star Wars. By deciding not to release the theatrical release on blu-ray, he’s clearly supporting one version of Star Wars above another. Maybe he wants to make his revised, Special Edition version the only “true” version because he’s had to suffer through seeing his films be interpreted in hundreds if not thousands of different ways. Sometimes this was done reverently, other times in ways combining amateurish invention and unfiltered adoration and other times filled with hatred and condescension. With so many different versions of Star Wars available to the masses, maybe he’s worried his version, the only one he thinks really matters, is being lost in the mix.

I have to admit I find it kind of sickening to watch people argue, rather than have open and honest discussions, but argue and fight over silly things like Han shooting first. Who gives a shit? Multiple versions of that same event exist on official releases. That in itself is problematic but at the end of the day, regardless of your opinion, all those versions exist. If you choose to accept one version over another, that’s fine. I’d actually encourage it because I would then ask you why you preferred one over the other and that could be the start of a fun conversation about Star Wars and who doesn’t like that? But once the discussion evolves into which version of Han shooting Greedo is the “right” one, you enter dangerous territory. That leads to remixing Star Wars and it becomes of battles of which version is right and which version is wrong.

You can also throw in the whole idea of canon into that discussion. Star Wars is a multi-media franchise. Comics, novels, video games, TV series, etc. Many stories from different genres directly contradict things in the movies and in other stories. The development of an Expanded Universe of tie-in media before the release of the prequels trilogy inevitably led to contradictions galore once the prequels were finally released. The same thing is bound to happen with the release of Episode VII and Disney has already published a press release on the matter. Which stories are “true” Star Wars and which ones aren’t? Which stories count? I know that this is opening the floodgates but really, there is an easy solution to all of these questions. It all counts. It’s all one glorious mess of super-continuity.

No two fans can agree on what Star Wars really is. So why not embrace it all? Lucas and the fans need to embrace it all. Why is it so difficult to be able to admit that you like certain things and dislike others? Where does this need to erase the things you don’t like come from? Is it in reaction to Lucas’s own hypocrisy? Do fans who re-edit the films feel as though they’re sticking it to Businessman Lucas? All of that doesn’t matter to me because I love it all. I even love to hate the parts I don’t like (“Yippee”, anyone?).

Love 'em or hate 'em, Ewoks are part of Star Wars. I choose to love 'em. 

The idea of super-continuity isn’t mine. I’m borrowing it from Grant Morrison’s take on Batman. While writing his multi-year Batman story, Morrison decided that all of the published Batman stories have actually happened to the character. There is a way to better understand and appreciate all Star Wars stories in how Morrison treated Batman. He attempted to reconcile large section of the character’s past into one huge, ever-expanding history for Batman. In this idea of super-continuity, if something was published with Batman in it, it “counted”. It happened. The same idea can be applied to Star Wars and essentially all other entertainment franchises. You can choose not to read or watch any stories in which Jar-Jar appears, that’s your call, but you cannot dismiss him by pretending he never existed in the first place. He did and it’s up to you to reconcile that.

I like to embrace it all, the good with the bad. By not allowing myself to watch Episode I, I’ll never have to deal with some of Jar-Jar’s worst moments. That’s true. But I’m also missing out on tons of other cool ideas that are present in the movie. I also miss out on Obi-Wan’s early days and that’s a shame because he’s one of my favourite characters. I’m not trying to tell you Episode I is a misunderstood masterpiece because it’s not. It’s a visual masterpiece; the entire prequels trilogy is a visual feast. Yes, Episode I (or maybe Episode II) is the worst Star Wars movie but it’s still has its moments. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not the worst thing to ever have happened to Star Wars, it’s also not the first thing that “ruined” the franchise. I’d like to offer up Star Wars: Jedi vs. Sith as one of the worst stories in the franchise. It’s certainly one of the worst comics. As for things that happened before Episode I that contributed to ruin Star Wars for a certain category of fans, you can kind of take your pick. It can be a pretty selective list. Some people will posit that Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was the first step in a dumber Star Wars. Others will mention Star Wars Holiday Special.  I for one love Return of the Jedi. Ewoks? Love the little bastards. You can hate them and you can disagree with me but Ewoks are still Star Wars. You can’t change that and neither can I. What Lucas has forgotten is that he can’t change that either and he has to stop trying.

Have fun with continuity. Embrace it. Hell, the first obvious thing that comes to mind is a drinking game. Take a drink every time something happens in Episode I that you don’t like. I guarantee you’ll like the movie by the time the end credits roll because you’ll be so inebriated.

Overall The People vs. George Lucas was very frustrating to watch. It’s well put together and some of the people in the movie actually had some very interesting things to say but really, it’s just inconsistent in what it’s trying to be. It wants to discuss what Star Wars is to fans and the difficulties that come with being a fan, many of them having their source with Lucas. It’s also trying to be a comedy and it kind of undermines some of the more serious and interesting discussion. Some of the comedy works, but a lot of it doesn’t. It also feels very one-sided and I feel as though the movie was trying to make me hate Lucas. It’s all a bit difficult to understand though; it’s not an easy subject for a documentary. Star Wars fandom is filled with confusion and contradictory emotions and opinions. I think it’s important that we remember that Star Wars is a multigenerational franchise. The first generation of fans had so little Star Wars for so long that they invested themselves in the franchise. The newest generations of fans have been bombarded with Star Wars media their entire lives. For them, it’s been non-stop.

The movie ended on a hopeful note. People are willing to give Lucas and the franchise the chance to amaze us again. When a fan’s reaction to not liking the first of the prequels is to go and watch it twelve other times, it’s a strong sign that he has faith in the creator and the series. Fans felt betrayed by the prequels because they had very specific expectations and when they were giving something different, they wanted to continue watching until they “got it”. Fans acted as though they didn’t understand the movies, as though they were the problem. When it finally clued in that they weren’t the problem the finger was pointed at Lucas and the remix culture caught on. I don’t agree that Lucas has a responsibility to the fans. I think that’s a perceived responsibility. However, I think he does have a responsibility in preserving cultural history and it’s up to us to ensure he acknowledges that. As for fandom, it grows and changes hand in hand with the franchise. It’s bigger than all of us combined and the contradictions is what fuels the growth of its fans by always having another element to enjoy, criticize, and debate.

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