(Image by Courtney Nicholas)
In honour of I don’t know what, I’ve been delving back into the films of George Lucas. I suppose it’s because of the news of a new Star Wars trilogy. I recently read Skywalking, Dale Pollock's biography of Lucas. The book details the struggles he endured working himself up to the place where he could have artistic independence, something important to him because of how he was burned by those overseeing THX-1134 and American Graffiti.
Isn’t it fun to think about that young weirdo thinking up Star Wars in his writing room, pulling his hair out as he wrote what was to become a new religion? It's crazy to think that one guy just came up with all that crap and now it’s embedded in all our heads, as deep as anything. Say what you will about Star Wars, it's a cultural touchstone with a footprint that is larger than than the foot that made it. It's also a great film.
There is a moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy threatens to blow up the ark with a bazooka. His archaeological rival, the blue-eyed Belloq, says something like, “You won’t blow it up, Dr Jones. This [the ark] is history. We are just passing through.” This is how I feel about the Indy and Star Wars films – at least all the ones made before 1999.
There is something about my loyalty to the original sets of trilogies and my rejection of the later Indy and Star Wars movies that says something about the endurance of the original films and their status as pieces of history. Of course, it’s nostalgia. Those films aren’t just part of film history or cultural history – they contain my personal history. I can go back to the original films and remember my childhood. Like a favourite song from the past that evokes a period in time, those films can instantly bring me to the days when I spent so much time imagining myself in those worlds. Like Proust, the on-screen images take me to my younger self, who sucked up everything about those films and painted my suburban life with their spectacle.
Lucas was a guy who was just making stuff that he loved. American Graffiti was an ode to his youth. He was a faux greaser who sucked in school. He would probably have lived a quiet existence if he hadn’t had a life-changing car accident that set him on the road to seriousness. He eventually enrolled in USC film school, a place where a young technician could thrive. His early student film, and then the eventual feature, THX, revealed his penchant for sci-fi. American Graffiti was a way for him to do with film what many young writers do with their early books. He immortalised the young fuck up he once was, encapsulated the time and mood of the period right before he started to become what he is known for. I know I did the same with my first book. The title says it all: Palo Alto – I’m writing about a specific place.
Star Wars and Indy were things that at one time didn’t exist. George and eventually Lawrence Kasdan dreamed them up. They took from many sources, like Buck Rogers, James Bond and even some old World War II films, and created something indelible. And as they were inspired by the old serials, their movies have influenced everyone from Ridley Scott with Alien to Jerry Bruckheimer and his National Treasure franchise.
I know that Han Solo had a huge influence on how I thought about the Wizard in Oz, a loveable rogue who is reluctantly pulled into the fight for good. And it turns out that Indiana Jones is more of a model for my life than I could have ever imagined: a college professor who splits his time between teaching and travelling the world having adventures.
I thought I would get into why I rejected the more recent incarnations of these series, but I don’t think it’s important. What is more important is that the guys behind those franchises made more. They tried to give everyone what they wanted. South Park can mock Spielberg and Lucas all they want, at least they tried. We waited two decades for our follow-ups. The problem was that the follow-ups were released into a different world with different expectations than the early films. When the first Star Wars was released it came out on less than 50 screens! That’s how little the studio believed in it. It took everyone by surprise. But when people deal with sequels there are new expectations. And when something has dominated the cultural consciousness for decades and served as crown of the popular film cannon, then the expectations placed on a follow-up are infinite.
The other issue is that the films that were game changers are now having to compete with audiences who have grown up within the new environment that the old movies created. Technology and taste change. Something that is treasured through the gauze of nostalgia can be preserved in the public favour, but if the same movie were made today that was made 20 years before, it would not be received in the same way. Like Borges’s Pierre Menard, if Don Quixote is rewritten in a different place and time, the exact same text, it takes on a completely new significance. It becomes a new book.
Lucas isn’t remaking the same movies. He’s trying to do things that are new. But, like the ark in Raiders, his movies have become history. So even though he has gained his financial independence from Hollywood and controls these films, they really belong to all of us. The Nazis could carry the ark around and open it if they wished, but when they did they had to face the spirits that such an act unleashed. In that case, the Nazis had their faces melted. When Lucas reopens his cultural box, he always runs the risk of either pulling out the Ten Commandments (the ark’s original contents) or the wrath of the viewership that he created.
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