Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Fault Lies Not In The Star (Wars), But In Ourselves

Among the titles getting play at the SXSW film festival this week, one that caught my eye was a new documentary, "The People vs. George Lucas." My knee-jerk reaction was that this was yet another indulgent fanboy-coddling geek screed against the "Star Wars" franchise, the latest sign of fannish entitlement getting way out of control in the digital media age. But reading up on a few of the reviews, it sounds like this one strives for balance between the pro- and anti- Lucas camps, and is more concerned with the fan-creator relationship than chronicling the animosity of the players. And though the subject matter is slight, I have to admit that it does intrigue me as someone who loved the older films and didn't care for the revamped editions or the prequels.

I think every movie fan of a certain age had a stake in "Star Wars." I was definitely one of them, despite discovering the first trilogy about fifteen years after everyone else and initially watching edited-for-TV versions of the films - out of order no less. I have fond memories of seeing the 1997 Special Editions in theaters, though I wasn't keen on the so-called improvements. And I was in high school when "The Phantom Menace" arrived and got swept up in the momumental wave of hype. But though the prequels disappointed me, I was never embittered by them the way a lot of other "Star Wars" fans were. I more or less gave up on the series after "Attack of the Clones," realizing that Lucas was keen on permanently mucking up the image of Darth Vader, one of my favorite villains. I didn't bother seeing "Revenge of the Sith" until it hit the rental shelves.

Looking back, I have to admit that despite reading the extended universe novels and being able to recite "Return of the Jedi" dialogue from memory, I really didn't have much emotional investment in "Star Wars." It was a memorable part of my teenage years, but I didn't have much difficulty letting it go. Sure, I vented my spleen with other fans and engaged in some George Lucas bashing, but the urge was fleeting. When being a "Star Wars" fan stopped being fun, I just moved on to the next fandom: "Lord of the Rings." There was so much going on in the geeky media-sphere in the early 2000s, it seemed like a waste of energy to keep griping and listing out my druthers.

But the true "Star Wars" obsessives can't let it go and can't move on. It would be easy to mock these older fans who got so caught up in this universe and devoted so much to it, but I know better. The original "Star Wars" is special, a film that changed Hollywood, science-fiction, and all of media fandom for better or for worse. It was one of the first modern summer blockbusters, a cultural touchstone of the 70s, and sits atop many lists of the most influential pictures ever made. That the second and third films turned out as well as they did was a minor cinema miracle. Watching the original trilogy dazzle audiences back in the day must have been thrilling, and I don't begrudge anyone who cherishes those memories. And I truly sympathize with those who believe that something they feel so strongly towards has been cheapened or tarnished.

But blame George Lucas? Stepping back from my own preferences, I think Lucas understood what he was doing with the prequels. As many have pointed out, he didn't make the second trilogy for the existing "Star Wars" audience, but aimed them squarely at kids of a new generation. Always a technical innovator, he opted for cutting edge digital effects over older, more familiar methods. And since the plotty bits weren't his strong suit, he favored action and bombast over thoughtful scripting. In short, he did pretty much everything he did in 1977 that made the first "Star Wars" the success it was. Whether he was successful or not this time around is up for debate, but taking his failures as a personal affront seems petty to me. Time moved on and so did George Lucas.

I'm far less forgiving when it comes to how Lucas has handled the first trilogy, pushing the Special Editions with their updated effects and music, and often removing access to the untouched versions. Those films are a part of cinema history and the collective memories of millions of children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and the originals always should have remained available. Deep down I know that "Return of the Jedi" ends with the Ewok song and a glimpse of the ghostly image of Sebastian Shaw. And nothing George Lucas does or says will ever change that. To an certain extent, the "Star Wars" films no longer belong to Lucas alone, but to everyone who grew up with them and loved them.

But on the other hand, "Star Wars" as a larger entity does not belong exclusively to the original fans, no matter how strong the love. Eventually the fans of the prequels and the fans of "The Clone Wars" cartoon, and the fans of all the "Star Wars" media to come will grow up and have their say. They'll be the ones who keep "Star Wars" alive when we're gone and shouldn't be easily dismissed.

And no doubt they'll hate George Lucas for the next round of edits and retcons and wacky creative decisions just as much as we did.

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