Whose Film Is It Anyway?
George Lucas
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"Do or do not. There is no try."-Yoda (Frank Oz), The Empire Strikes Back

George Lucas changed the face of the film industry vastly, permanently, and entirely. But probably not in the way you think, and not always for the better. Over a career that has now spanned 40 years, he directed just six movies, and wrote only four by himself (though he had co-writers on three others, bringing his screenplay count up to seven). He has been vastly more productive as a producer and as a creative force than he ever will be as a writer or a director. And while it's possible, and even easy to lob criticisms at him as a terrible writer and a director who peaked years before his most famous film, no one can claim that he isn't a visionary as an idea man.

The way he reshaped the film industry has little to do with this though, at least on the surface. Saying that George Lucas invented the independent film scene as we now know it is slightly inaccurate (there were independent films before him that followed a model more similar to the way they are made today than what he pioneered), yet in the way that really matter, George Lucas invented the independent film scene. By the time of his second feature as a director, 1973's American Graffiti (which we will talk about in a moment), he had already created Lucasfilm, the production company that would release one of the biggest films of all time on its own just four years later. George Lucas made Star Wars (or, as its now more popularly known, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope), a big budget smash hit, completely outside of the studio system.

You know what else George Lucas did that completely and inexorably altered the movie-making landscape? He invented the now completely inseparable idea of merchandising for his movies. As he put it himself, "I figured if I got posters and T-shirts and things with the name of the movie on it, it would help promote the movie. The whole idea that licensing would be a revenue stream didn't occur to anybody." Every time you slept in your Star Wars sheets as a kid (or, for some of you, as a slightly embarrassing adult), every time you laughed at Yogurt's schtick in Spaceballs, and pretty much every poster that was probably hanging in your room as a kid, even the ones that on the surface had nothing to do with George Lucas, really only exist because of George Lucas. Add to that what THX has done to improve the sound in movie theaters, making itself an omnipresent force nationwide (though the current incarnation has nothing to do with Lucas, it was developed by Lucasfilm to ensure that the fidelity of the sound in Return of the Jedi would be of high quality across the country), and the groundbreaking work both on the Star Wars films and in general contributed to special effects by ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), and George Lucas becomes one of the most instrumental forces in our entire conception of modern cinema.


But taking a step back, for a moment, to look at Lucas as a filmmaker, you'll notice that his body of work is miniscule, and a full half of his movies as a writer and as a director are, too put it mildly, worse than two Holocausts. It wasn't always that way, though. When THX 1138 was released in 1971, people pretty much just thought it was worse than a small Eastern European genocide. The film was produced by Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola based on a short film Lucas had made while in film school at USC. When the duo brought the finished film to Warner Bros, who had recently loaned Coppola $300,000 to open his own studio, American Zoetrope, Warner Bros. wanted their money back, and forced Lucas to cut down the film before its release. The debt that THX 1138 put American Zoetrope in forced Coppola to reluctantly take on another project to keep his studio afloat. And that unenthusiastic project would grow up to be The Godfather. For those of you keeping score at home, that means that in addition to being responsible for the flaming abortion that is the prequel trilogy, George Lucas also unwittingly brought us The Godfather. Sure, he re-edited his movies so Greedo shoots first and Jabba the Hutt has terrible musical taste, but his blunders also brought us Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro's incendiary portrayals of Vito Corleone (I'm conjecturing here, that if Coppola hadn't made The Godfather, he never would have made Part II, which I think a fair assumption). Where does that leave Lucas karmically? This is a question that will probably keep me up nights.


THX 1138 was far from a commercial success (though it did recoup its budget), and was critically dismissed at the time (though it did receive fairly good reviews), which is kind of surprising considering its easily Lucas' best directed film. It follows the titular THX (Robert Duvall) on his quest to escape the strictures of his totalitarian society where love is prohibited and free thinking greatly discouraged. In Lucas' mind, it seems, the distant past was a time of enlightenment when good could triumph over evil (let's not forget, fellow film geeks, that Star Wars is set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"¦"), but the future is a dystopian nightmare where people can't grow hair, fall in love, or pursue their dreams. This might shed more light on Lucas' film career than it seems. In his early days, he made a very good sci-fi film that criticized consumerism and mirrored his own personal struggle for artistic freedom in a studio system that wouldn't allow him to shine. Yet within a decade after the release of THX 1138 he had fallen down the rabbit hole, changing his mind about the original intended death of Han Solo because he worried it might hurt action figure sales. Oh, how the mighty had fallen (by becoming insanely more rich and successful than I can even conceive of, both because he had a lot of money and because counting has never been my greatest strength).

If Star Wars can be viewed as the beginning of Lucas' artistic death, as the point right before his creative integrity was devoured by his own marketing ingenuity like an Ouroboros of getting rich off of action figures instead of great movies, then American Graffiti can be seen in a whole new light. It exists as Lucas' second feature, and his last movie within the studio system (it was co-produced by Universal Pictures, in addition to The Coppola Company and the new Lucasfilm), as another example of an assured director gaining confidence along with his experience, and as the point at which cineastes had to stand up and recognize Lucas as a potential filmic force to be reckoned with. It became a sleeper hit commercially and garnered high critical praise, basically cementing Lucas' place alongside Coppola, Speilberg, and Scorsese as a member of the "film school brats" of the early 1970's. The film follows one wild night in the small town America of the early 1960's, as two recent high school graduates (Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard) prepare to leave the town behind to go off to college. A series of thinly tied together vignettes that examine nostalgia, hope, fear of the unknown, love, lust, friendship, milkshakes, sock hops, and fast cars, American Graffiti is a film that encapsulates an idea, and an era so well that it guaranteed Lucas would be taken seriously and solidified him as a director of great promise.

I did suggest nary a paragraph ago that Star Wars might be viewed as the beginning of Lucas' artistic death, and I want to clarify that I in no way mean that as a criticism of the film, which can only be described as awesome times infinity. Like pretty much everyone born between, say, 1970 and 1992 (I'm approximating here the year in which someone might have been old enough to have seen and fully absorbed the Original Trilogy before the release of the New Trilogy could have tainted their associations with Star Wars), the film is completely engrained into the way I view the world, and I'm not even sure that qualifies as comic hyperbole. I was raised on Star Wars, grew up on Star Wars, and still watch it at least once a year. Star Wars is very likely one of the reasons I approach the world with the pop culture obsessiveness that I do. So when I say that it may have precipitated Lucas' creative death, I do not mean that Star Wars wasn't a great movie; on the contrary, I think it may have been too good.

Think about it this way: when In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released, Jeff Mangum effectively retired from making new music (at least so far, anyway, and a guy can dream, right?). I have always viewed this retirement as a sort of admission that the art, and the pressure that comes from creating great art, beat him. What I mean is that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is pretty much the perfect album. Knowing he had made a masterpiece, I can imagine it would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine returning to the studio to make more music. Whatever you did, it would inevitably be compared to your previous work, and it would probably pale by comparison. This is a theory I also ascribe to Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and then never put pen to paper again. Once you've made your masterpiece, it may be very difficult to try again. To a certain extent, what's the point?

In the same way, I wonder if Star Wars didn't beat Lucas. He was just blossoming as a director when it was released, and it was the first script he had written by himself. Where THX 1138 had been a commercial failure and American Graffiti a sleeper success, Star Wars was made for a budget of $11 million and grossed $307,263,857 in its initial theatrical release (and in total to date has, by itself grossed over $775 million). And while both of his previous movies had received decent reviews, the praise for Star Wars was nearly unanimous (Though a few critics, including Pauline Kael, Peter Keough, and Stanley Kauffman panned the movie). Virtually from the moment of the film's release, the world clamored for a sequel.

And at that point, Lucas just stopped. He wrote the story for The Empire Strikes Back, but the screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and the film was directed by Irvin Kershner. He co-wrote Return of the Jedi with Kasdan, but that was directed by Richard Marquand (after tragically being turned down by David Lynch, who knew he wouldn't get the freedom he required working with Lucas) and had begun production based on Lucas' story long before the screenplay was ever written. While Lucas was instrumental to the creation of another of film's most successful franchises, Indiana Jones, he served as a producer and story consultant on all of those films, never writing or directing any of them. He produced numerous films in the decades following the release of Star Wars, and even contributed ideas to some (though his creative ideas seem to experience diminishing marginal returns, as by 1988 when he produced The Land Before Time, he is credited only with coming up with the fairly obvious idea that the female triceratops should be named Cera), but for a long time it seemed like his desire to write and direct were completely gone.

Until, 22 years after his last directorial effort, Lucas stepped behind the camera again for The Phantom Menace, only his second film as a solo writer-director. Steve Wilson of Salon.com may have framed the problem with the film best when he said, "Perhaps the absolute creative freedom that director George Lucas enjoyed ["¦] with no studio execs and not many an independently minded actor involved"”is a path to the dark side." After a two decade long hiatus from writing and directing, Lucas decided to take on a task that is Sisyphusean at best and to do so with no outside input. There was probably no way that Lucas could have made a film that surpassed the original trilogy; maybe even trying was a fool's errand. Yet I'm not sure Lucas made the film as a true artistic endeavor.

There's a distinct possibility that after being consumed by his marketing acumen decades earlier, his artistic impulses were too dormant to be awakened. But after going through a messy and costly divorce in 1987, and seeing the enduring popularity of his universe, Lucas began to develop the prequel trilogy in the early 1990s. That the new trilogy was a mercenary marketing decision intended to make Lucas millions upon millions of dollars regardless of their obvious lack of quality is a tragedy if it's true, but at the same time it might soften the blow of their awfulness just a little. If George Lucas wasn't trying and was just in it for the money, that makes him kind of a reprehensibly human being, but isn't it slightly better than the idea that the man who created Star Wars and Indiana Jones became not just creatively barren but actively bad at coming up with and executing his ideas? I would rather live in a world where the new trilogy and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were just moneymaking schemes inflicted on the general public because Lucas knows we're all saps and wants to line his gold pockets with a few pieces of silver than exist in a world where Lucas died creatively around 1984 and ambled around Skywalker Ranch as an artistic zombie for the rest of his life turning out schlock and thinking it gold. Call it the optimist in me.

George Lucas has a much smaller body of work than many of the directors I have covered in this column previously, yet the work he did do has been vastly influential. Lucas altered the way movies are made and the way they are watched in a way that is so complete it's almost impossible to describe his influence. And yes, at the end of the day a full half of his directorial efforts are terrible, terrible movies, but they're also his catastrophes. No one else in the world could fail that spectacularly and just keep trudging on. The critical drubbing that ensued after The Phantom Menace might have deterred someone with less will or more respect for his fan base, but Lucas pushed on, turning out Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and reviving the Indiana Jones franchise with an idea so awful only he could have pushed it into theaters. When David Lynch turned down the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi, it was because he knew the movie would be Lucas' no matter who directed it. A vision as strong as his cannot be subsumed, no matter the cost to his reputation or to his soul. It's kind of poetic, really, that Lucas in a way followed the advice of one of his most famous characters (in a line he almost certainly didn't write). He did. Then he did not. But if one thing can be said of the modern Lucas, it's that with him, there is no try.

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3/13: Hal Ashby

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4/10:Aaron Sorkin
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