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The People vs. George Lucas: the verdict?

2010-05-03-peoplegeorgeEver since the release of The Phantom Menace, Star Wars fans old and new have debated the merits of the new trilogy, and Lucas’ decision to drastically alter the original trilogy to make it more ‘modern’, not just in the effects department, but taking some rough edges off main characters.  The new documentary The People vs. George Lucas, from director Alexandre O. Phillipe, is a good distillation of that debate.  It offers up, in a compressed timeline, an overview of the history of George Lucas and the almost religious following he has insipred.   Before jumping into the review, I almost feel it’s necessary to classify my level of Star Wars fandom…

I’m what some in fandom would call a “Jedi denier”, since I never liked Return of the Jedi all that much.  Apparently I really did, but have re-imagined history, because to some, all three of the original trilogy exist on the same pedestal.  Apparently the fact that in the years between Empire and Jedi I had discovered girls, punk music, Blade Runner, Alien and The Evil Dead (the latter two via a lax rental policy at the corner video store), Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick. don’t count for anything.  Star Wars may have jump started my love for film and science fiction, but Return was my first cognitive realization that I was being sold a product (at least on the silver screen).  With that out of the way, on with the review…

Although the title suggests that we’re going to be presented with a courtroom proceeding with evidence presented by both sides, we instead get an episodic tale, where chapter one “Nerf Herder from Modesto” takes a look at George’s life before Star Wars, from childhood through his frustrations with lack of control in making both THX 1138 and American Graffiti and ending with the hit that is Star Wars.

From there, it’s time for the fans to speak, and through them, they get to express what is largely a love/hate relationship, especially for those who remember seeing “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” appear on the big screen in 1977, only to be crushed decades later by the Phantom Menace. Through following the fans, the viewer of PvsGL gets a condensed view into Star Wars fandom. It’s also a great distillation of all the petty complaints and debates that have raged on in that unique circle for years. One of the best known criticisms levied against Lucas is altering the scene in Star Wars where Han shoots Greedo. In the “Special Edition”, he altered it so that Greedo appears to shoot first, proving that he’s possibly the worst bounty hunter in the galaxy, but also taking away some of the rogue elements of Han Solo, who’s clearly nothing but a drug runner (though never addressed in the film).

Most fans do complain about this, but the larger picture (which IS touched on in the film), that Lucas has no plans on allowing the original trilogy to be seen in their theatrical release form ever again isn’t so much. From a film history point of view this is a real shame, because it was the work of those on the original film that garnered it effects and set design Acadamy Awards.  Now the only way film historians, students of effects and others can see that untouched work is through bootleg copies of the original films downloaded off of torrent sites.  This aspect, as well as the “who owns Star Wars” with it’s cultural impact, and thousands of fan films is another question addressed, that I would have liked to have seen explored more.

After all, just about every film that has been retrofitted or restored to the directors ‘real’ vision, from Apocalypse Now to E.T. has come out with a release that includes both the theatrical cut and the directors cut.  Look no further than Blade Runner, which has seen 5 versions if you include the work print.  The deluxe version of that movie contains all 5 versions, theatrical version, which is despised by most of the people involved (and many of it’s fans) for the voice over and happy b-roll ending.  On the Star Wars fan works, it’s interesting that Lucas hasn’t gone out of his way to wield the copyright hammer on the community, which is certainly something in his favour.

It’s worth noting that if you’re not a Star Wars ‘fan’, you’ll still find the documentary interesting, possibly moreso than fans who’ve spent countless hours debating these ephemeral and sometimes nonsensical (at least to those outside the fishbowl) issues.  One of the people I saw the film with actually enjoyed it because she wasn’t a Star Wars fan, and found it interesting from an anthropological point of view.  Since my knowledge of Star Wars fandom is vicariously through other rgb’ers and the last fan film I saw was Troops, I’d have to side with her.  For non-fans curious about what Star Wars has spawned, The People vs. George Lucas is a good jumping off point.

In writing this review, I found myself poking around in well-known Star Wars fandom parts of the internet, and was surprised by the comments from Star Wars fans who hadn’t seen the documentary film thinking it was an out-and-out hit piece on George Lucas, when it actually strikes a pretty even handed tone by the end.  This is almost inevitable, given the love/hate relationship that many long time fans, including, probably, the makers of The People vs. George Lucas, have with Lucas and his creation.

Of the film itself, I really enjoyed the pacing of The People vs. George Lucas.  The inclusion of a number of fan films serve as good punctuation to the points made by various interviewees, and add some great comic relief.  Some of the fan interviewees are irritating as a Star Wars Holiday Special, but they’re all well shot.  I couldn’t help wonder what some of the hardcore fan filmmakers could achieve on their own if they got out of the Star Wars universe, because there’s real talent in there, just waiting to escape the clutches of The Force.

Towards the end, it did seem to lose a little steam for me, but that’s because I was probably hoping to hear more about the copyright and film history issues and less about Jar-Jar Binks hatred, but it’s really a minor complaint in retrospect.  Lucas himself only appears in archival footage, so he really doesn’t get to present his side of the case, but I don’t think anyone’s surprised that he doesn’t appear in the film.

Though the film doesn’t cast a final verdict on the case presented in the title, I get the impression that The People have agreed to settle with Lucas out of court.  The terms of that settlement include the continued purchase of the multitude of plastic bobbles and doohickeys that Lucas cranks out.

On that front Lucas wins.

There’s one more showing of The People vs. George Lucas during the Toronto Hot Docs film festival, Tuesday evening at 11:45.  Check out the Bloor Cinema or Hot Docs for ticket information, and is well worth checking out.

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  • Rob

    You know, along with Kerry Fraser, Yoko Ono, Hitler, and Joe Quesada, George Lucas is one of the five people I would leave stranded on a desert highway with a flat tire.
    I would slow down so he thought I was gonna stop and help, then peel off screaming “This is for the Phantom Menace!” whilst flipping him the bird, and leaving him coughing in a dust cloud.

    • Doug Groves

      Kerry Fraser? The NHL ref? All I remember about him is his hair. I take it there’s a few bad calls lingering about, if a hockey ref makes the list.

      • Rob

        May 27th 1993. When he dies, this date and the bad call will be mentioned by more than one Leaf fan. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find my crying towel.

        • Doug Groves

          Hmmm… back in those days, I only really followed the Leafs in the playoffs, so enlighten me hockey-wan-kenobi.

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