Archive for October, 2012

Star Wars, geek culture, and periodization

One of my earliest memories is being in the movie theatre for the second run of Star Wars. I think. I was not quite three when it was re-released on 15 August 1979, but I have a memory of seeing the Death Star run in a theatre seat. I might have been in my dad’s lap. At any rate, it was all Star Wars all the time from that point until I was probably seven or eight; the toys were a regular appearance at my birthday and Christmas several years in a row (the AT-AT was my main Christmas present in 1980, as I recall), I had all the storybooks and novels, I read some of the comic books, and I had the kids’ cassette tape read-along versions as well. Watching the film on VHS was a regular activity when my friends and I had Friday night sleeplovers, and I also recorded it one of the times when it was broadcast on CBS. (Fun fact: John DeLancie, aka “Q” on Star Trek: The Next Generation, was in a cough syrup commercial that aired with that broadcast.)

I never did get into the Timothy Zahn novels — by the time I was in high school, if it wasn’t a movie that George Lucas was involved with, I didn’t particularly care — but I remember the “Kenneth Branagh as young Obi-Wan Kenobi” rumors starting around 1993. (I still wonder if there wasn’t something to those, particularly since it’s come out that Obi-Wan was older in the original treatment of Episode I, and that this older character was basically split into young Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn.) I also discovered the early drafts of Star Wars online around 1996 or 1997, and became fascinated by what might reappear in the prequel trilogy. Might we see Whitsun? The planet Utapau? Would Anakin Skywalker’s character be anything like Annikin Starkiller? (No, yes, and sort of, but Darth Maul attacking Qui-Gonn and co. on Tatooine in Episode I was very similar to a key moment in one of these drafts.)

I never quite understood the unhappiness of some people with the Special Editions; yes, there was some lame stuff, but I had no problem with the stated reasoning behind them (after all, I was one of the people who clamored to see the “Director’s Cut” of Blade Runner that wasn’t actually a “Director’s Cut” in 1992). I also wasn’t one of the people who looked like the sun had just fallen out of the sky coming out of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I enjoyed the prequels — again, yes, fine, there were stupid bits, but I didn’t get the near-total turning on Lucas that the Ain’t-It-Cool-News crowd staged. Were the new films the focus of my existence the way the first three had been? No, of course not, but nor should they have — the Star Wars prequels represented ages 22-28 for me, not 3-6. By the time Revenge of the Sith completed the cycle, the Lord of the Rings films had come to represent a more sophisticated, up-to-date view of fantasy-on-film (as they should have); to some extent, so did the Harry Potter series, and then Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies represent another stage of this kind of moviemaking, at least for me.

(Somebody somewhere along the way probably expected me to write something about The Dark Knight Rises. Well, I had a 4 week old baby when it came out, so that post kinda fell by the wayside. I’ll probably write something when the Blu-Ray hits the street. In short, I’ve seen it 4 times, and I think it rewards multiple viewings; one may perhaps argue that it’s a bad Batman movie, but I would argue that even if that’s the case — and I’m not sure it is — it’s still the right way for Christopher Nolan’s story to have wrapped up.)

Still, some things started to make me scratch my head. The behind-the-scenes material on the Episode I DVD showed Lucas talking about how Jar-Jar Binks was intended to be “the funniest character ever in a Star Wars movie”, and it struck me as weird that he would shoehorn a totally unnecessary character into a story he’d supposedly had plotted out for years. It was also evident from reading Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars that whatever Lucas imagined the prequels (and, perhaps, sequels) might have looked like back in 1979 was a completely different beast from what we got from 1999-2005; heck, for that matter, whatever he thought they were going to look like in 1999, even that was something very different from how he finished up six years later. It was also plain that Lucas really wasn’t a good enough storyteller from a technical standpoint to not need somebody else to edit him and bounce things off of, and that what we got really amounted to him making it up as he went along from movie to movie. Did that diminish the accomplishment? No, not necessarily, but why the need to resort to revisionist history every time he made up something new so that it was always accounted for in the “original master plan” that apparently never actually existed in the first place?

Last year, I made the decision to not buy the Star Wars Blu-Ray box. I could handle Darth Vader’s “NOOOOOOOO” at the end of Revenge of the Sith; it made sense in context. But to tack it on at the end of Return of the Jedi — nope, sorry, George, I’m not giving you my money for that, and I’m tired of apologizing for you. I don’t claim to understand his reasons for revising everything and pretending that it was always the way he intended it, even when it wasn’t, but I don’t want to play the game anymore. Sorry, I really don’t.

With today’s news, we get one more bit of revisionist history:

“For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next,” said Lucas. “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime.”

Compare with Lucas telling Starlog and Vanity Fair in 1999 that there was no way that there would be a sequel trilogy directed by other people, and telling Total Film in 2008, “I’ve left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features. There will definitely be no Episodes VII – IX” (link here).

I would like to suggest that George Lucas has been perhaps the single greatest contributor to geek culture of the last forty years. Even in the last 15 years or so — in 1996/1997, websites like Ain’t-It-Cool-News, the original incarnation of Corona Coming Attractions, Dark Horizons, and the like all started popping up, and one of the major raisons d’être for such sites was that the trilogy that we’d all been dreaming about for over a decade looked like it was finally going to get made. Such sites made geek moviedom an exciting place to be for a few years.

I would further like to suggest that he has been the single greatest contributor to making geek culture the shrill, bitter, entitled, cynical group of online jackasses that it largely is now. (Lucas, as well as the studios realizing that these websites could easily be turned into just another cheap marketing outlet. I’m looking at you, Harry Jay Knowles, and I’m a guy who remembers AICN from the http://www.bga.com/~rodan/coolnews.html days.) I don’t relate to the “George Lucas raped my childhood” people, but I can’t deny that there’s a big group of movie fans that feel like they got the biggest bait-and-switch in history, and there have been consequences. (By contrast, the guys who maybe have contributed some very serious class to this brave new world? Michael Uslan and J. Michael Straczynski, whose respective abilities to be real gentlemen and to provide an inspiring window into the projects they work on are amazing. Yes, sometimes JMS comes across as a bit full of himself, and Uslan’s non-Batman movies are hit-and-miss at best, but nonetheless, they’re both doing it right in a big way.)

So now we enter the Disney period of Star Wars. One of the things I’m trained to think about as a historian is, when trying to come up with a schema for periodization, looking at the sources to which your historical actors are looking back. The Renaissance is the Renaissance because they’re looking back to Greco-Roman antiquity. Early Modern Europe is Early Modern Europe because they’re looking back to the Renaissance. That kind of thing. In making the first Star Wars movies, Lucas was looking back to serials, to Flash Gordon, to The Hidden Fortress, to a language of filmmaking that had been largely abandoned, so all he had to do, really, was rework it with the tools he had available in 1975, and invent whatever new tools he needed to be able to make that kind of cinematic experience up-to-date for the contemporary audience. There wasn’t really an existing frame of reference for what Star Wars was doing — Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run were what people thought of when it came to cinematic science fiction and fantasy.

The problem with the prequels, ultimately, is that they had an audience with expectations. Both Lucas and the audience had to look back to Star Wars, Lucas so he could figure out where he needed to end up, and the audience to try to second-guess him. Between 1983 and 1999, there were things like DuneHoward the Duck (ahem, George), Superman IVBatman and RobinAlien3 and Alien:ResurrectionIndependence Day… lots of ways that audiences had been shown that studios would cynically try to squeeze money out of them with inferior product. Surely George Lucas (who, as I mentioned, gave us Howard the Duck) wouldn’t do that, right?

And, as I say, I’m not convinced that he did do that with the prequels, but there are sufficient numbers of people who are convinced of that, that, really, Disney needs to be very conscious of what they look back to as they approach this new era of Star Wars. Are they going to look back to the prequels (which we might think of as the Middle Ages)? The originals (which we might think of as the Late Antique Roman Empire in full bloom)? The sources of the originals (Greco-Roman antiquity before Constantine)? Will we get a Star Wars Renaissance? Or something else? Are they going to give this to talented filmmakers who idolized the original trilogy growing up to try to reinvent and to do something as revolutionary playing in this universe as the first movie did in establishing the universe? Or are they going to give this to people who do serviceable work-for-hire and hope for a franchise that nobody needs to think too hard about, like Pirates of the Caribbean became? Will these new films be just so much big-budget fan fiction? At the same time, can’t one make the case that the prequels amounted to big-budget fan fiction that happened to be done by George Lucas? Dunno — guess we’ll see in 2015. We’ll see if this new trilogy is worth Theodore’s time the way the original trilogy was worth mine.

And meanwhile, Bryan Singer is back on X-Men, too. He’s coming back to do a sequel to a reboot/prequel/whatever — that he was supposed to direct in the first place — of a series that he got kicked off of to do a sequel to a different series, and the person who originally replaced him on the movie he got kicked off of, and who also replaced him on the reboot/prequel, is whom he’s replacing now. Got all of that? Days of future past indeed. Between this and Leia Organa now being a Disney princess, everything old is new again, and vice versa.

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