SXSW: The People vs. George Lucas Helps Us Heal

By David Wharton 2010-03-15 16:19:26discussion comments
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The scene outside the Alamo Drafthouse Saturday night was about what you'd expect for the world premiere of a new project about Star Wars. Long lines. Stormtroopers working security. In fact, the crowd of festival goers was so large that they added a second screening later that night. I made it inside, just barely, and settled into one of the few remaining seats: front row, far right. If that didn't bring back Star Wars memories, I don't know what would. To make things even better, I found myself seated next to an overly friendly fellow with some sort of breathing disorder that gave the impression I was sharing an aisle with Darth Vader himself. After director Alexandre O. Phillipe gave a quick introduction, the lights dimmed and the man responsible for some of the defining moviegoing experiences of the past century, a man loved and reviled -- often at the same time -- by fans the world over, went on trial. Court was in session, and first on the docket was the case of The People vs. George Lucas.

The People vs. George Lucas takes a courtroom approach to deciphering how the George Lucas who shaped the childhoods of an entire generation with Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi could be the same George Lucas who broke many hearts with the prequels and the latest Indiana Jones outing. The film strives to present both sides: that George is entitled to tell whatever stories he likes with the world he created and that we've all become cynical old farts who view the original trilogy through the darkened lens of nostalgia, or, conversely, that Lucas is a soulless profiteer who violated our childhood memories with a strap-on shaped like Jar Jar Binks. Thankfully, the film doesn't limit its explorations to these two extremes, instead serving up a broad spectrum of opinions culled from dozens of people with one thing in common: they love Star Wars. Or, in some cases, they used to.

Phillipe first provides a little background, filling us in on the basics of how George Lucas became George Lucas(). The origins of Star Wars have been discussed and written about exhaustively over the past three decades, so thankfully PvGL doesn't spend too much time retreading this well-tilled ground. It simply gives us enough to get a feel for who George was before Star Wars, the better to understand who he became after it. From there, it moves on to discussing how Lucas' creation became a phenomenon, then a franchise, then an indelible part of pop-culture history. Testifying are film critics, filmmakers, journalists, and just plain fans, all speaking of what an impact the movies had on them. Then comes the anger: one after another excoriates Lucas for betraying them with special editions, Greedo shooting first, and those goddamn prequels. Most cutting, however, are Lucas' own words, as when the film quotes him speaking out against Ted Turner's colorization of classic films, then contrasts that to Lucas' own never-ending meddling with his beloved original creations. There are defenders as well, from those fond enough of the prequels to have created fan websites, to a pair of French filmmakers who inexplicably argue that Jar Jar Binks was a brilliant cinematic creation.

Even the most interesting documentaries can grow tiresome if they're just an endless parade of talking heads, and PvGL gets around this by accompanying the various interviews with footage not just from the Star Wars films, but from the countless fan projects, spoofs, and spin-offs they have inspired. Well-known projects like Troopers and George Lucas in Love share the screen with obscure YouTube entries you've probably never heard of. Better than any number of gushing interviews, these clips demonstrate just how many people Lucas' creations have touched, and make the bitter disappointment and even anger demonstrated by some of those disillusioned fans all the more palpable.

In fact, the longer the film rolls, the more apparent it becomes that, despite all the judicial trappings, this isn't a trial; it's a communal therapy session. An odd, hilarious, bittersweet communal therapy session, so that maybe, just maybe, we can start to heal. It's a chance for these few chosen witnesses to speak for us: of the magical first time we sat down and watched Lucas' films, of the childhood spent imagining new adventures with our toys...and of the stunned, heartbroken disbelief when Episode One just wasn't what we wanted it to be, what we had spent the previous decades imaging it would be. The People vs. George Lucas doesn't provide any definitive verdicts. It's honest enough to admit that ultimately, George Lucas is just a guy, and maybe we never had any right to hold him up to the standards we set for him after 30 years of nostalgic devotion. Maybe it's time to accept Star Wars for what it is, rather than bemoaning what it isn't.

And if not, I hear Target's having a special on pitchforks and torches.
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