Thanksgiving is behind us now, and Christmas waits like a trap ready to spring. The holidays are a time when many people schlepp their way across the country to pretend not to be miserable in the company of their family for a few days. Unfortunately, the weather for many of us is too wintry to consider braving the elements outdoors in the event that Uncle Billy starts offering his unsolicited political views–and there likely won’t be any tauntauns nearby to snuggle up into while we wait the blizzard out. If you’re smart, or desperate, or just need a reason to decline an invitation to play dominoes with your emphysemic Aunt Marla, remember that the Lord (or whoever) has truly blessed us this yuletide season, for we have Star Wars.
I am thankful for the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Star Wars ’77 was the first film my parents saw on a date together, so it’s practically in my DNA, and when I saw those original trilogy films as a kiddo I was instantly hooked. Up until I was in college, Star Wars was just about the only pop culture fandom I cared about, and, I shamefully admit, I read the entirety of the Expanded Universe novels. However, by the time the one-two punch of the increasingly ridiculous books and the devastatingly underwhelming prequel trilogy came out, I had lost interest. The girl who played Shadows of the Empire on her N64 and could tell you the difference between a Kowakian and a Sullustan without a moment’s pause had been burned out and stood up by her fandom, and so moved on to other things.
I know from talking to others that my experience wasn’t exactly an outlier; the prequels were a disaster, burned through a lot of the goodwill from the fanbase. George Lucas’ grumpy attitude in the years hence hasn’t exactly helped to warm others to his cause–just last month he gave a fairly pissy interview in Vanity Fair grousing over the public reception to those films and comparing seeing Episode VII to going to the wedding of an ex-lover.
“You go to make a movie and all you do is get criticized, and it’s not much fun. You can’t experiment.”
– George Lucas, Vanity Fair
At this point, especially after J.J. Abrams and Disney tossed his early Episode VII treatment, I think it’s pretty clear we’re never going to get the mea culpa some feel Lucas owes, but that’s okay. Those past efforts were Lucas’ baby, and for good and ill, he made the films he wanted to, and that’s what art is (although so is taking criticism like an adult, some would say).
Still, even though the prequels were bad enough to break me out of my enthrallment with the world George Lucas built, I’m thankful for quite a lot. Let me make a totally ridiculous analogy:
George Lucas is the Jerry Jones of filmmaking.
Okay, I’m pretty sure I just lost at least half of you (oh, much more than that – ed.). Lemme ‘splain. Ever since the death of the Oakland Raiders’ owner, Al Davis, Jerry Jones has been one of the most hated team executives in all of professional sports (if not taking the top honor outright), and for some pretty good reasons. In 1989, right after buying the team (and their dilapidated stadium) for a song, Jones fired Tom Landry, one of the most beloved men in football and the coach who had won them two Superbowls. It was a wildly unpopular choice, and since then Jones has become pretty famous for spending a ton of money on players that end up performing like an old man without his Cialis–like paying a $12 million bonus on top of Terrell Owen’s $37 million contract, then cutting him the next season. Receivers seem to be Jones’ favorite money-hole, as he’s spent tens of millions on players like Joey Galloway, Miles Austin, and Roy Williams without really anything tangible to show for it. Tony Romo, despite being a pretty decent quarterback statistically, has delivered as many playoff wins in his 12 years with the team as Chicago’s Rex Grossman did in just one (for any film nerds whose eyes haven’t glazed over yet, Grossman is roundly considered one of the worst quarterbacks in modern history).
Moreover, just in the last five years, players on his team have been arrested on counts ranging from public drunkenness to aggravated use of firearms to manslaughter. And that’s not counting the player on this year’s team, Greg Hardy, arrested after using his girlfriend for a punching bag, whom Jones continued to defend in public long after it was apparent that Hardy was a complete dirtbag. This sort of behavior isn’t Jones’ fault, but the environment his program fosters does not appear to be one conducive to his goal of turning these troubled players into model representatives of the NFL.
Here’s the thing, though: Jerry Jones is the NFL’s only team owner who is also his team’s general manager. All that bad stuff above? Those are deeds done in his role as GM. The role of the manager is simply that: manage your team. That includes the selection of players, the type of locker room environment you foster, who and what the team publicly supports, and what kind of behavior they will and won’t tolerate from those associated with the program. Jones, in this regard, is pretty awful at being the team’s manager. Maybe one of the worst ever.
But… Jerry Jones, Owner?
After buying the team and firing Landry, nobody much liked Jerry Jones or his team. But as the owner, he turned at least the latter around, drastically overhauling the coaching and managing staff and leveraging the brand value in ways the league had never seen before. That plan resulted in three Super Bowl victories, five Hall of Fame players, and a ridiculous 47 Pro-Bowl selections, and most of that in very short order.
He also got rid of this rusted-out deathtrap:
And built this, uh… football… cathedral?
Okay, so what the hell does this have to do with George Lucas?
Fair question. Much as Jerry Jones’ clout as the team’s general manager has depended on the goodwill garnered by three magical Super Bowl seasons years and years ago, so too has Lucas’ reputation as a AAA filmmaker leveraged a series of early successes (mainly Star Wars, but also American Grafitti and his involvement with the Indiana Jones movies). And just like Jerry Jones’ egomania caused him to make some truly bad managerial decisions (like firing Landry) in order to exert his authority, Lucas decided to eschew surrounding himself with other creative talent when it came time to film the prequels, despite how invaluable such a team was for the original trilogy. Left to their own devices and bereft of qualified support, these two titans of their respective fields founder mightily and, God, is it embarrassing to watch.
As a filmmaker, George Lucas has proven to be somewhat uneven. Maybe even bad. That debate will rage on for years to come, but there are a startling number of people who have worked with him that don’t seem to have a problem throwing him under the bus. As a creative talent, it’s hard for to argue in support of his individual achievement–but let’s talk about the other George Lucas. Not the guy who thought the concept of midichlorians was a brilliant idea. Fuck that guy. He’s out of his mind. No, let’s talk about the other George Lucas iterations. George Lucas the Cinephile. George Lucas the Producer. George Lucas the Philanthropist. That George Lucas? That guy rocks. Like an owner should, he’s been utterly fantastic at polishing his brand–a drive for technological innovation, an abiding love of cinema, and a generous spirit. This holiday season, I’m thankful for that guy.
George Lucas, Cinephile:
You probably knew that Lucas, and by extension his production company, Lucasfilm, are responsible for creating advanced film tech companies such as THX (acoustic presentation) and Industrial Light & Magic (visual FX), but did you know about Skywalker Sound, the world’s foremost cinematic sound engineering studio? Or that animation giant Pixar was originally a division of Lucasfilm? It’s all true, and the talented individuals in charge of those companies carry on the legacy despite Lucas’ retirement. Lucasfilm now has several newer divisions emerging and getting larger all the time, such as Lucasfilm Animation, which is responsible for the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoon series (among others), and the ILMxLab, a tech division that develops ways to integrate Lucasfilm IP into newer technologies, such as virtual reality.
While the argument over Lucas’ reliance on digital cinematography and post-production tends to focus on the ways he become more concerned with advancing the science at the cost of his art (and I don’t disagree), his focus on advancing film technology helped establish what are now industry standards. He led the push for converting cinemas across the country to digital projection to ensure uniform quality of presentation, and Sony and Lucasfilm together collaborated on the use of the HDW-F900, the first all-digital camera for cinematic photography. Episode II: Attack of the Clones was the first major studio film ever to wholly use digital cameras, something so commonplace today that JJ Abrams is making waves for having shot Episode VII on analogue 35mm filmstock. So if you’re a kid in film school or an independent filmmaker shooting on a shoestring budget, remember who to thank when you’re not having to shell out $50/minute to develop your rolls of celluloid, and when you realize your entire kit can fit into your backpack now instead of a rented van.
George Lucas, Producer
Even from early on in his success, Lucas was using his fame and clout to leverage projects that expanded his own companies and gave opportunities to developing talent. Frank Darabont, the Oscar-nominated writer/director behind The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Walking Dead, came up through the ranks of Lucasfilm on the television show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Lucas also lent a helping hand to Joe Johnston, who began his career doing effects work for the original Star Wars and would eventually direct such films as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and Captain America: The First Avenger.
Additionally, Lucas dedicated millions of dollars to bankrolling films that not only spoke to his interests, but which might otherwise have gone unfunded by more conservative studios afraid to take risks with genre fare. Most people know that he produced the Indiana Jones films, but you might be surprised to find out that he had a hand in such 80s cult classics as Willow and Labyrinth, as well as the very adult neo-noir, Body Heat.
And of course, Lucas is the one who got the ball rolling on the two in-canon Star Wars TV shows, The Clone Wars (available on Netflix) and Star Wars: Rebels (Disney XD), which continue to tell new stories in our favorite galactic home for Jedi, charming rogues, and Wookies.
To his infinite credit, Lucas has also become a great philanthropist. He’s joined The Giving Pledge, committing his personal wealth to charity alongside Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. He started the non-profit The Lucas Education Foundation and it’s brand, Edutopia, as an effort to foster educational development and innovation among school-aged children, and through that effort has lobbied over the years to decrease costs and barriers to communication within primary education. He has also donated over $200 million dollars to his alma mater, the University of Southern California, to expand, develop, and fund their film department–a decision that will influence generations of young filmmakers to come.
Lucas may have slipped quietly into his dotage, but his legacy–stretching far beyond Star Wars–will never be forgotten. Jerry Jones could learn a thing or two.
But George’s most enduring legacy remains that galaxy far, far away. Star Wars: Episode VII is out now at a theater near you–I’ll be there and I know you’ll be, too. Everyone will–it’s the cinema event of the decade. Just remember: as we all gather together this holiday season to celebrate our love for each other (or pretend as best we can, aided by our good friends in the bourbon industry), we may not agree on politics, or be able to stand all being in the same house for too long, but our shared love for that special place from A Long Time Ago is the one thing that can unite us all.
Happy Holidays, my friends, and may the Force be with you all.
– Amy “Atomika” Davidson