The election is over, the Petraeus scandal has already grown far too operatic for my tastes and it's getting very difficult for one to even consider the ravings of the right. So let's take just a few minutes to talk about something really important: George Lucas.
A lot of cyberspace has been filled with blind hope and fear about the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm these last two weeks, but very little has been devoted to acknowledging the reason for the deal: the enormous debt of gratitude owed by our culture to George Lucas.
Don't get me wrong. I know that Star Wars isn't Tokyo Story. I loathed the prequels and some of the special edition changes as much if not more than the next guy. More than that, I am as excited to see Tronned-out versions of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford fight Darth Vader's clone as everybody else. I know that George Lucas would never have made that movie, and that Disney probably will. So, in a completely selfish way, I am a little glad to see the man legally parted from his legacy. But I'm also willing to acknowledge that all of these opinions are based in an appreciation for his earlier films.
And who would have made those films but George Lucas? No one in their right mind, really. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were then and are now outrageously old-fashioned. Yet they were also monumentally influential. This seeming contradiction exists because Lucas was willing to invest time, energy, his reputation, a great deal of money and the considerable talents of people like Steven Spielberg, Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan in ideas that were hopelessly out of style. It was brave. It was foolish. It was kinda brilliant.
The 1970s are usually referred to as cinema's greatest decade. I might personally argue that they were merely popular film's greatest decade, but there is little denying that complex, mature films were more in fashion than ever before. They even managed to all but take over Hollywood, which practically bookended the decade with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Even grindhouse theaters were making stars like Bruce Lee and Pam Grier in films that were better than they had any right to be -- all the while competing for screen space with porn!
But what was there for children? I don't imagine parents were sitting around saying things like, "Gee, the kids sure are crazy about that Fassbinder," "Little Tim and Alice just won't stop pestering me about Cries and Whispers," or , "Oh, the kids are dragging me to Tarkovsky's Mirror again." Theatrical animated shorts were even then things of the past and Disney produced just four animated feature films in the 1970s, up from a mere three in the 1960s. Outside the Planet of the Apes movies, science and speculative fiction films of the '70s weren't exactly big on fun, either. 2001 had set the tone in the late '60s for a more cerebral brand of sci-fi to follow. Solaris and A Clockwork Orange are great films, but they're hardly a day at the zoo. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind wasn't exactly a kiddie thrill ride, and it wouldn't see release until six months after Star Wars.
Enter, into this environment, George Lucas. Lucas had just established himself with the critical and commercial hit American Graffiti, but (legend has it,) what he really wanted to make was the kind of space opera serial he loved as a kid. Keep in mind that these films were produced in the '30s, so they were already considered dated by the time Lucas would have seen them. Still, he did it, did it spectacularly, and kids in the '70s came to love serialized space operas, too. As did kids in the '80s, '90s, and third millennium.
This is where I would normally write about how successful Star Wars was, how many imitators it spawned, how many toys it sold, how many people saw it and how many books have been written about it. But what would be the point? Have you ever met an American who hasn't heard of Star Wars? I wasn't even alive when Star Wars came out and I know every line. The films have been monumentally influential--and that's probably an understatement.
But the influence of Star Wars did not merely push us forward, it also reached backward, bringing into the popular consciousness incredible stories and storytellers that might otherwise have been forgotten. In crafting this enormous success -- arguably the most successful film of all time, when the resulting franchise is considered -- Lucas, like so many working in science fiction and fantasy, came to hold the positions of both creator and curator. In terms of intertextuality, Star Wars rivaled Alphaville. But unlike Godard's film, Star Wars has become a major part of our popular culture. And it wasn't just Flash Gordon and A Princess of Mars that Star Wars drew its inspiration from; clearly Kurosawa and Chrétien de Troyes had just as much, if not greater, influence. With Star Wars Lucas began a series of links that are exceptionally important in the chain of human story. After all, how often do you see The Hidden Fortress mentioned without Star Wars?
This isn't to say that Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark are good because they lift from other works, or direct people to them. Both are great on their own and, in fact, Star Wars ranks as one of history's very few truly groundbreaking films. I mention these connections to illustrate that many times we dismiss the importance of things that eventually become woven into the fabric of our culture. Every story is a link in a chain that will continue as long as humans are telling them and Lucas has produced some very, very important links.
Another great example: Lucas famously lifted the rolling boulder trap at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark from an old Uncle Scrooge comic, but it is the Raiders scene that people are most familiar with. The homage had a direct impact on Barks' legacy. Globe-hopping archaeological adventure wasn't exactly a popular, highly-exploitable commodity until Raiders exploded. In fact, I suspect that if it had not been for the success of Raiders, Disney's animated series DuckTales, based on those Barks comics, would never have been produced. Volume upon volume of reprinted Barks' stories would likely never have been printed. College courses on Barks' work might not be taught. Would I have ever discovered Barks' work as a boy, had it not been for the success of George Lucas? Unlikely. In an appreciation for the beautiful oversize collection Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times, Lucas wrote that Carl Barks' stories are "a priceless part of our literary heritage." The same could be said of Lucas' work, of course, no matter how hard some will scoff at the suggestion.
Sometimes this is a hard line to walk and, admittedly, Lucas has had mixed critical (if not financial) success. I didn't have much love for Temple of Doom until after I had read novelists like H. Rider Haggard. I still see it as a disappointment, even if I understand why they went in the direction they did. And, while there is a certain undeniable logic to having aliens in a '50s-set pulp story, inter-dimensional ancient aliens felt rather out of place in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Still, these films remain exceptions to Sturgeon's Law, even if they don't approach the quality of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade. And is it really fair to bash George Lucas for not always matching his own greatness?
More importantly: while not every child who saw Star Wars was inspired to watch to read Burroughs or Asimov, a great many no doubt were. Make no mistake about it: those people are far more likely to be the next generation of storytellers. Many, many children will grow up crafting stories that Star Wars first inspired them to tell. And the ones who don't, well, they still have Star Wars, and that's certainly no bad thing. What really, really matters about his work is that Lucas inspired children to imagine and that is, frankly, the most important thing any storyteller can do for the future of the art -- or for humanity.
Lucas seems to be very aware of the power he has to influence children (and not just to buy action figures). When the company released the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on DVD, Lucasfilm produced a whopping 94 historical documentaries, each around a half-hour in length, to supplement the package. Is anybody in the world under the impression that this was done to make money? Of course not. The goal was to use the Indy stories to get children interested in a given subject, then educate them about it. Lucas hopes that the documentaries will be used in classrooms. He even plans to donate the bulk of the money from the Disney deal to various educational endeavors.
As for the Star Wars prequels and certain parts of the Special Edition releases, I for one could write volumes about what I disliked about them. But what would be the point? I still wouldn't have missed one. Star Wars has become so ingrained in our culture that they're no longer mere movies: they are major global events. More importantly, I know kids and young adults who grew up loving those prequels. They might not love them now, but much the same way the original Star Wars reintroduced Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, the prequels introduced these kids to the original Star Wars. And while I hate to break it to the aggrieved, sometimes it's okay to make children happy even if you don't fulfill the dreams of aging fanboys in so doing. And the original films do still exist, even if they've been given unforgivably shabby treatment on home video.
Will Disney correct this by releasing the original trilogy on Blu Ray? I imagine that they will. If they're really smart and Lucas or the DGA would allow it, they might even release new special editions, retaining the improved effects and corrected errors but jettisoning the changes in action or dialogue. Sure, their treatment of the Muppets back catalog has been lackluster to shameful, but Kermit isn't quite the cash cow that Darth Vader is. (Though he certainly should be.)
And does any of this justify the treatment Lucas has been given by the press and, ironically, the biggest fans of his legacy over the last 15 years? Not even remotely. And when George Lucas' obituaries grace the front pages (hopefully many, many years from now,) each and every one will use two words: "critics" and "visionary." Which one would you rather be: someone who celebrated the man who brought old stories back and pushed storytelling forward, or someone who was once personally offended by someone else's knights in space yarn?
So before the announcements start to roll in and we all go back to celebrating or denouncing the deal, could the interested parties all take just one moment to thank the man for what he accomplished during his time at Lucasfilm? After all, one would be pretty hard-pressed to name a living man who has contributed more to our popular culture.