George Lucas: visionary gone blind? Genius derailed? Or just a guy who makes movies?

I just finished reading a Wired article about George Lucas. It’s pretty interesting!

Here’s a snippet (complete with cliched reference coopted from Alice in Wonderland by The Matrix):

But like a programmer sneaking Tolkien lines into his code, Lucas has planted stealth references to 21-87 throughout his films. The events in the student-film version of THX took place in the year 2187, and the numerical title itself was an homage. In the feature-length version, Duvall’s character makes his run from a subterranean city when he learns that the love of his life was murdered by the authorities on the date “21/87.” And in the first Star Wars, when Luke and Han Solo blast into the detention center to rescue Princess Leia, they discover that the stormtroopers are holding her as a prisoner in cell 2187.

The rabbit hole goes even deeper: One of the audio sources Lipsett sampled for 21-87 was a conversation between artificial intelligence pioneer Warren S. McCulloch and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer who went on to develop Imax. In the face of McCulloch’s arguments that living beings are nothing but highly complex machines, Kroitor insists that there is something more: “Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God.”

When asked if this was the source of “the Force,” Lucas confirms that his use of the term in Star Wars was “an echo of that phrase in 21-87.” The idea behind it, however, was universal: “Similar phrases have been used extensively by many different people for the last 13,000 years to describe the ‘life force,'” he says.

I knew Leia’s cell number, but I didn’t know it had any significance. This article is pretty neat, filling in some holes and letting us see Lucas as a person, and his life as a journey.

I imagine that most people will be shocked and offended by the idea that Star Wars “sidetracked” Lucas from his true film calling, but I can see how he might think that. There’s an interesting quote at the end of the first page:

“I’ve earned the right to just make things that I find provocative in my own way,” he says. “I’ve earned the right to fail, which means making what I think are really great movies that no one wants to see.”

This is proof-positive that his claim that he is making the Star Wars movies for himself and not gearing them towards an audience is total BS. I think that once he found himself with an audience, he felt extreme pressure to keep that audience satisfied. I think that’s why Return of the Jedi wasn’t quite as good as its two predecessors, and why the prequels were so disappointing. Rather than telling his own story in a unique way, Lucas simply copycatted himself stylistically, for fear of losing his audience. (I don’t need to point out the irony here.) Now, looking back on the prequel stories, I can see what Lucas was trying to do. And honestly, I think he could have done it. But the fact is that he didn’t.

There is hope. Lucas has always been a pioneer. Here’s a striking image from the article:

“If you want to know what editing was like before George came along, visualize that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Michael Rubin, author of Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, which will be published this fall. “If you shot a movie like Star Wars, you had 300,000 feet of film and sound rolls that had to be code-numbered and matched by hand. If you wanted to cut the scene where Luke was doing this and Han Solo was doing that, some poor schmuck had to find those pieces so you could fit them together with tape. It was like the Library of Congress with no librarian.”

EditDroid, the digital-editing system that Lucas’ team of engineers invented in the 1980s, replaced this Sisyphean task with film scanners, a searchable archive, and a drag-and-drop interface. Sold to Avid, it has become the core of the technology used to edit most major-studio releases and nearly all prime-time TV programs today.

The list of Lucas’s achievements goes on, and then culminates with this intriguing point:

“Everything George has done has been to reduce the distance between what’s in his skull and the pixels on the screen,” Rubin observes. “He’s really a painter.”

I believe that. I believe that Lucas is very talented. And now that he’s got the Star Wars maguffin off his back (supposedly), I’m excited to see what projects he’ll undertake. How he’ll “fail” and make “really great movies that no one wants to see”.

The article veers into a discussion about how pretty much everyone who is interested in film as art is waiting for George Lucas to make the groundbreaking films he is capable of.

By the time Lucas got around to making The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, however, even longtime fans and colleagues started asking if his focus on technology had become, as Thoreau put it, an improved means to an unimproved end. While the original film had the scruffy vitality of a garage band making its big break, the recent episodes can seem like a whirlwind tour of Industrial Light & Magic’s interplanetary showroom.

“For me, those films pummel you into submission,” Murch says. “You say, OK, OK, there are 20,000 robots walking across the field. If you told me a 14-year-old had done them on his home computer, I would get very excited, but if you tell me it’s George Lucas – with all of the resources available to him – I know it’s amazing, but I don’t feel it’s amazing. I think if George were here and we could wrestle him onto the carpet, he’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ve gotten into that box, and now I want to get out of that box.'”

It concludes with–I’m not joking–the horribly cheesy line, “Lucas, trust your feelings.”


All in all, the article’s fun. If the author is a bit too idealistic and hero-worshipping, treating Lucas like a god who’s simply lost his way, well, then, so am I. No harm, no foul.

There’s a list of Lucas’s film influences at the end of the article, as well as a link to a Q&A. All interesting stuff.

(I guess some people are freaking out about Lucas’s comments in the Q&A about Fahrenheit 9/11. And BoingBoing is freaking out about that. So, in other words, it’s just another day here on the Intarweb. Personally, I like Lucas’s take: “History is fiction, but people seem to think otherwise.”)