"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Lucas Minus Star Wars: What have we learned?

tn_lucaslucasminusstarwarsThank you for indulging me these last few months as I went through all 44 years of George Lucas productions, from the one he made when he was 27 (THX 1138) to the one he made when he was 70 (STRANGE MAGIC). As you know, I’m interested in how Lucas created possibly the most beloved thing in pop culture history (the original Star Wars trilogy) and then became nerd culture’s biggest pariah when he came back to the series later in his career. The Star Wars phenomenon (both its dark side and light side) is so blindingly powerful that it eclipses everything else he’s ever been associated with. I thought it would be valuable to look at his filmography but with Star Wars removed from the equation.

Kind of. You may’ve noticed that I’m too fascinated by his idiosyncratic later work and much of the world’s fanatic hatred of it to leave it out entirely. I couldn’t help but find foreshadows and echoes of the prequels in most of his other movies. I tempted fate by bringing it up again and again, showing (as I was discovering it) that the prequels fit into a larger body of work and obsessions than just that one particular saga about the space conflicts. I want to thank all the commenters for not falling too much into another debate about prequels and special editions even though I kept leaving an opening for it.

I thought about leaving Indiana Jones out of it too. It’s the other thing people might associate Lucas with, it’s certainly been covered before, and my controversial pro-CRYSTAL SKULL stance is obviously a powder keg of potential backlash. I’m glad I did it though, especially because it meant watching some of the Young Indiana Jones TV series. That was an impressively ambitious experiment and a missing link in my understanding of the evolution from beloved analog Lucas to dangerous digital Lucas.

The most valuable part was everything else, though. I knew this would be a fun series when I looked at his filmography and realized what a broad range of material Lucas was involved with. Yes, the sci-fi and fantasy, but we’re also looking at works by a foreign master, an experimental documentary, three different animation mediums, a 3D music video theme park attraction. I’m so happy to have found out how great MISHIMA is, to have gotten a better appreciation for WILLOW and LABYRINTH, to have learned that MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI is actually good (I even successfully turned a couple friends onto it). These weren’t all great movies, or even good, but all of them were interesting.

A couple things I respect about Lucas, based on having watched and read up on all these:

still_lucas1. The many times he used his clout to get other people’s movies made, whether it was his inspirations and mentors (Akira Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA, John Korty’s TWICE UPON A TIME, Haskell Wexler’s LATINO, Godfrey Reggio’s POWAQQATSI, Francis Ford Coppola’s TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM) or friends and collaborators whose talents he believed in (Lawrence Kasdan’s BODY HEAT or Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS). Studios weren’t giving money to these people, so he convinced them to, sometimes with full knowledge that they were not good financial investments. He loves movies.

2. His high number of passion projects. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, WILLOW, RADIOLAND MURDERS, RED TAILS and STRANGE MAGIC were all ideas that he hung onto and contemplated for a long time before he actually made them. He was never one for churning things out. This also applies to the prequels. The prudent commercial thing would’ve been to make them sooner and faster, or to have never stopped making them in the first place. Whether you agree with the results or not, philosophically you gotta respect the guy for waiting until he had a new angle on them that excited him. Right? Anybody?

3. Related: Using his huge early success (and contract-signing foresight) to fund a career as a true independent. It’s amazing that he was able to put millions of dollars of his own money into TUCKER and RED TAILS, big budget movies that studios didn’t have faith in (apparently for good reason) but that he wanted to make. Even when others were funding the movies he had great control because of all the resources he provided in-house, including post-production facilities and the very best special effects available.

4. His wide range of interests. Themes include car racing, samurai code, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Nicaragua, rock ‘n roll, the radio age, industrialization, oppression. His name was synonymous with the most gigantic blockbuster crowdpleasers, but he also had a part in bringing us Japanese historical drama and bleeding heart non-narrative cinematic poetry. It wasn’t a “one for me, one for them” situation. This is a guy who reinvented how movies were made and presented in multiple eras. He was always moving to something new. They were almost all “one for me”s.

Only time will tell if any of these traditions will carry into the Lucasfilm Minus George that is now owned by Disney Minus Walt. You all know I prefer the messy reinvention of the prequels to the careful greatest hits remixing of THE FORCE AWAKENS. It’s easy to worry that Disney’s Lucasfilm will be no more than a catalog of intellectual properties, a factory manufacturing nostalgic Star Wars and Indiana Jones continuations until the banthas come home. (banthas are a star wars animal, wouldn’t that be exciting to see them again… but with a new twist? Stay tuned) But what if they follow Lucas’s lead and come up with new stories and characters, develop them over time, nurture their talent, promote them, take chances on them, try to push envelopes instead of just extend franchises? What if they use the banner to back great artists from previous generations or other cultures? After they get the “it’s great because it’s practical effects” out of their system what if they get passionate about inventing new technologies to put things on screen that we didn’t realize we’d never seen before, or to put movies together in different ways?

I kinda doubt they’ll do any of that. But they should consider it. What’s the point of getting all that toy money if you don’t use it?


Now, for easy access, here’s my almost complete set of George Lucas reviews, in order of release:

THX 1138
BODY HEAT (uncredited guarantor)
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
(secret experimental films he’ll only show to friends)

This entry was posted on Friday, February 19th, 2016 at 11:09 am and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “Lucas Minus Star Wars: What have we learned?”

  1. This has been a phenomenal read from start-to-finish, Vern. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Vern! This was a ton of fun, turned me onto and reminded me of some pretty great movies that I didn’t know that Lucas had any involvement in, and gave me (not really a Star Wars guy) a new respect for the man.

  3. Bravo! This was an absolutely fantastic series. You’ve articulated what I’ve been trying to say for years amazingly well, and highlighted some good films I wouldn’t’ve looked at otherwise.

  4. I genuinely loved this series and came away with a deeper appreciation for the auteur aspects of George Lucas. I also loved your approach to the material and the links you teased out over the course of GL’s career. This was a real slam dunk, Vern. Thanks for writing it.

  5. Thanks Vern, one of my favorite series here also.

    I hope Lucas makes another movie.

  6. No Thank YOU for sharing Vern. It was a fantastic review series. Dare I say your best. As a fan of Lucasfilm growing up it schooled me on some old favorites and introduced me to new ones. I really appreciated the insight you came through with.

    I learned a lot about George Lucas (a man who has NEVER raped ny childhood) and I respect him more than I already did which was already a lot. His commitment to loyalty, the art of creating and standing up for the metaphorical little man is a true example of striving for excellence. I believe that was the greatest take away from LUCAS MINUS STAR WARS. If that was the goal then well done sir.

  7. They were almost all “one for me”s”.

    The greatest one line summation of the man’s career possible. Amazing insight as ever Vern.

  8. You’re the best dude. Totally agree with all of your points – love him or hate him he really has forged his own path and has always been supportive of others. Kind of interesting that I haven’t heard of hardly any of his non-blockbuster stuff. I had no idea he worked with Kurosawa.

  9. This series was a hell of a ride. Even when his work falls short, I’ve always admired George Lucas, and these reviews do a much better job than I could at demonstrating why.

  10. Great job as always. Plus an enjoyable right through certain amounts of nostalgia.

  11. Rock on, Vern!

  12. One Guy From Andromeda

    February 19th, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    Great series, i learned a lot about Lucas i didn’t know before, came away with a new appretiation for the man and was thoroughly entertained. How long until you sell it to Disney, Vern? ; )

  13. Everyone else has already said it, but I’ll say it again: Thank you, sir! This has been great. And I never realized half of the things he did, so all the times I would give him grief for wanting to make his own little art films, I didn’t know he was doing it all along, by supporting others.

    In a strange parallel, I just watched Side By Side, a documentary (it’s on Netflix for about one more day) about film vs digital, and Lucas plays a large part in that. But it wisely doesn’t make him a villain, and I found the film fascinating. I even have more respect for Lucas as a result of the film paired with your writings. Bravo, sir.

    (And check out that doc if you can. Great stuff for film lovers.)

  14. A-fucking-men.

  15. Just love your eye for auteurs.
    Kinda funny, feels to me like in 2016 appreciating Seagal in public is much less riskier than appreciating Lucas. Sparks less outrage.

  16. My fondest hope is that George Lucas reads this series.

    Great work Vern

  17. Goddamn, Vern. Talk about striving for excellence. Kings to you.

  18. Thanks for this series! Great mix of the over-familiar and the completely unfamiliar, the kind of project that hooked me on online film writers in the first place, but that I don’t seem to see so much anymore.

  19. TAke a look at my youtube channel, you might be interested, I have some interviews of George Lucas.


  20. I think the series shows it’s important to have compassion in everything. Someone creates long enough, they’re bound to make something you don’t like. I’m guilty of it too, more so with Zemeckis or tony jaa using cgi. It really hit me with the Red Tails review. So what if it’s not the standard biopic? It was something that audience never got to see.

    I’ve come around to Phantom Menace thanks to Vern’s analysis and I wouldn’t even have a problem with the special editions if the original cuts were still available in current formats for comparison. That’s personal insecurity leading business and artistic decisions, but I feel for George succumbing to that too. I Wish he had the confidence to allow both versions to exist.

    Great series. Labyrinth is my favorite movie of all time and I’ll have to revisit Young Indy since young Franchise Fred was disappointed it wasn’t action adventure, but Franchise Fred would grow up to appreciate different takes on a franchise.

  21. Fred I’m with you there on Zemeckis. The only movie or his I have watched entirely since FORREST GUMP is CAST AWAY. I tried to watch the motion capture joints but couldn’t make it through them. Same for WHAT LIES BENEATHm.

    But he gave us Roger Rabbit and BTTF (my favorite movie). I have a similar sentiment towards Tim Burton.

  22. Respect will always be there for Zemeckis on my part is what I mean to say. Despite the clunkers. Again his classics are better than most other people’s classics. Just like Lucas. He’s on the same tier as Cameron, Spielberg, Mann, Verheoeven, McTiernan, De Palma and Burton who were all the directors who’s work back when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s made me a movie fan.

  23. Vern’s thesis point #2, I think that’s a contrast between Lucas and then and now with say, oh I don’t know, Marvel. Lucas certainly tried to keep the SW gravy train going without actual new SW movies from cartoons to Ewok shit, eventually into those Expanded Universe books and Dark Horse comics that both actually panned out commercially to a point.

    Hell if Marvel had done the OT, they would’ve stretched shit out. One whole movie about Han’s rescue, then the next film be about Endor. They probably would’ve kept Boba Fett alive just to use him again just in case. (Then again they pointlessly killed several of their villains so perhaps not?) But would there have been a powerful climax to the saga like ROTJ? Perhaps not.

    Meanwhile Vern, I’m sure you’re happy to know Disney recently bragged about making $3 billion in SW merch sales in First Quarter of this year. I’m sure they can’t wait to restart the Indy movies and make more money there and who knows, Willow reboot. I mean hell they have a PETE’S DRAGON remake out this summer because apparently why not?

    Star Wars merchandise earned over $3bn for Disney

    This movie is the biggest box office hit in the US.

  24. I never needed any convincing that George is The Motherfucking Man, but this series made a case for it with the the kind of evidence and research and meticulousness and lack of yelling haters to go eat a pillowcase full of dicks that I lack the patience for. What we got here is a real goddamn artist, fellas. They don’t come along every day. Which is why I take it so personal when people gush all over this new Star Wars like it did anything special or challenging or interesting or creative at all. What, because it had some good DRAMA? There are like a thousand dramatic television shows on right now, and all of them can put together a passable dramatic arc. Just strangle a kitten and the audience reacts accordingly. It’s easy. Create a universe and a mythology and a cast of characters and a way of telling stories and making images that still spark the imagination and sell boxes of macaroni and cheese almost 40 years later, that’s hard. There’s only a handful of motherfuckers have done that, and most of them weren’t also total mensches like George here.

    You’re a fuckin’ Titan striding the landscape of cinema, George. So it’s no surprise that most people can’t recognize it when they can’t even see past your ankles.

    And to you, Vern, I say thanks. Next time someone asks me why I stay loyal to Lucas, I’ll point ’em to this series. It’s a great piece of work and the world is a little better for it.

  25. Really wonderful series. Like others have said, I’d love it as a book but I feel you said all that needs to be said in your write-ups already. Thank you very much for these.

  26. The more I re- read this series the more I realize I may never fuck with STAR WARS MINUS LUCAS at all. Not even Rian Johnson’s entry like I had originally planned. Vern’s closing statement in this piece pretty much says it all. While Kathleen Kennedy’s disingenuous and bewildered body language in that video Jar Jar Abrams linked to is pretty much the nail on the head.

  27. Love Lucas. Always have, always will.

    Excellent series of articles that really point out why I love him, and above that, a reminder that a couple of the really interesting ones I haven’t seen.

    A fascinating guy with a really fascinating body of work.

  28. Another vote of thanks for this one Vern. As much as I enjoy the action and DTV stuff, I always like it when you venture a bit further afield. Several of these films I’d never heard of and even those I knew – Ran, Mishima – I had no idea about Lucas’ involvement.

    I don’t have much interest in reading behind the scenes or making ofstuff about film so the most interesting thing for me has probably been the recurrent theme of reworking and revisiting which informs his process. The repeated willingness to stump up cash or influence to get other people’s films made, coupled with the stuff I vaguely know about his social views make him a pretty righteous dude in my book.

  29. Loved this series as well. BTW Vern, since you went so far as to include the Young Indiana Jones chronicles, would you consider at some point reviewing The Clone Wars animated series? Apparently Lucas was pretty involved in the story planning, as discussed at http://herocomplex.latimes.com/tv/star-wars-the-clone-wars-head-writer-talks-about-george-lucas-religion-and-the-shows-lifespan/ …it’s largely a light action-adventure series aimed at kids, but to me the show has a lot of what I liked about the prequels (the worldbuilding and visual imagination, and even some of the political machinations and exploration of Lucas’ ideas about the Force in certain episodes) and less of what I didn’t like (dialogue and characterization mostly…you get to see more of the non-creepy aspects of Anakin’s personality for example). Obviously it doesn’t fit into the “Lucas Minus Star Wars” category but since you’ve already reviewed all the actual Star Wars movies it would be cool from a Lucas completist perspective.

  30. Can’t argue with any of that. Grorge is a brilliant artist and a great man.

  31. The Original Paul

    February 28th, 2016 at 4:49 am

    Man, I thought I’d posted here at least twice, and keep forgetting to press “submit”. So here goes…

    This has been an interesting series. It was fun getting another take on the couple of movies that I’d watched. The thing about these “revisits” is that I think they work best if you’re discussing a film that the reader has actually seen. And unfortunately, in the case of most of ’em, I hadn’t. I guess the big takeaway from it was how varied Lucas’ output has been. I had no idea he was involved with LABYRINTH, and I wouldn’t have guessed that he had this much variation to his work from the STAR WARS movies (which I didn’t see – with the exception of when I was in hospital when very, very young – until I was in my twenties anyway). For some reason it’s difficult to envision Lucas doing “passion projects” after watching the prequels.

    Nonetheless, an interesting series, with some interesting discussions.

  32. I’m kind of glad that the last Star Wars related project Lucas worked on was The Clone Wars. I completely agree that it builds on everything the prequels did right and fixed most of its problems, especially with the characterization of Anakin. He’s actually fun and charming in the series.

  33. I recently caught up with CLONE WARS after all these uears since I was stubbornly stuck on Tartokovsky’s iteration and I agree that it’s worth the watch. Both the animated series and microseries feature a superior Anakin to George’s films and are worth it for that alone.

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