Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lucas Stole All My Money!

The above picture is probably one of the most popular caricatures of George Lucas on the interwebs. For countless fanboys - or possibly half a dozen of them who just post the same thing over and over again - this is the image now most heavily associated with the creator of the Star Wars saga.

At least for those that don’t involve horns and pitchforks.

As our trilogy of essays examining Lucas and fandom continues, the relationship between Lucas and money must be addressed. Perhaps first and foremost, this seems to be the topic a lot of fans are simply obsessed with. There is really no way of calculating how many fanboys on the internet and off consider themselves informed experts when it comes to Lucasfilm and the financial rewards it has reaped.

Time and again though, I’ve read countless claims that Lucas - rather than having created films and merchandise and games and comics and books that they have exchanged money for, received, and probably enjoyed – has flat-out, no bones about it, stolen money from them. I encountered a poster on Facebook during The Phantom Menace 3-D release that was insisting that Lucas had in fact stolen all of his money, and he was doing so in a very vehement and very vocal manner.

The good news is, if George Lucas is indeed darting about the shadows, complete with ski mask, gun, and a bag from the comics with one of those dollar bill signs on it to carry all his loot in, as many, many fanboys would have you believe, the solution is very simple:

Just contact the authorities. I’m sure your local police department will be happy to assist you. They’re public servants, and that’s what they’re there for. I’m positive they will be greatly entertained by your efforts to explain the situation to them. The fact of the matter is, I personally don’t know why all these people are wasting time on the internet complaining about Lucas stealing their money. They should just file a police report and be done with it, like normal people would do in such a scenario.

After all, how hard could it honestly be to identify George Lucas in a line-up? Here’s a hint. He’ll be the one wearing a flannel shirt, jeans, and a pair of Nikes.

Or could it possibly be that, deep down inside them, in places they don’t talk about parties, they actually understand they don’t have a case?  That all this is just a sense of rabid fanboy entitlement that would be laughed out of court if it ever saw the light of day? That this is just another ham-handed attempt to wrestle creative control from the Star Wars saga that they didn’t create and have no claim to, financial or otherwise?

In a delightful post titled Just Say No, I explained a lot of this:

This may come as a shock, but when you were watching these movies over and over again as children, you weren’t making future investments. You weren’t purchasing stock in Lucasfilm. No matter how much money you shelled out on Empire merchandise, it in no way, shape, or form gives you the right to dictate artistic policy thirty years later.

You bought a toy back then? Okay, you got a toy. You saved your grass-cutting money to go buy a ticket to see A New Hope again? Okay, you got to see A New Hope again. Your grandparents gave you money for a Chewbacca t-shirt? Okay, you got a Chewbacca t-shirt.

End of story. Game over. Transaction complete.

Again, it is a sad state of affairs when I actually have to cut and paste just basic economic facts a second time. This isn’t a barter economy. You make money, you spend money, you get something in return. In no court of law anywhere in the Western hemisphere would anyone in their right mind consider this thievery. There are quite a few Easy-to-Read books in the children’s section of your local library that can explain this to you if you need additional help. They have Big Words and Brightly Colored Pictures and everything that may be of assistance. And much like law enforcement, the friendly librarians are there to help you as well.

But not it’s not that simple in Bizarro Fanboy World, is it? Not on your life. George Lucas must be held to a completely different standard than everyone else on the planet, customs and commerce and laws and constitutions and economic systems be damned.

This argument is just too easy to make, though. Like shooting fish in a barrel. With a high-powered rifle. With a laser scope. 

So okay, let’s assume the fanboys out there are right. George Lucas is simply in it for the money. He is the greediest, most soulless filmmaker on the planet. Every time he gazes through a camera, all he sees are dollar signs.

Then why did he even bother writing and directing and producing the prequels? That’s a lot of hard work, after all. Why didn’t he just turn the whole trilogy over to, oh, I don’t know, someone like Michael Bay? There would have been explosions bigger than the Death Star every five minutes and all the women would have been in slave girl bikinis and everyone would have been happy. And as I mentioned in the last post, for that matter why aren’t we on Episode XXVIII: The Red Lightsaber of Doom or some such by now? After all, the whole fanboy argument rests on the assumption that there are entire armies of mindless sycophants out there ready to shell out money for anything with a Star Wars logo on it, right?

Assuming the fanboys are right again, what are the practicalities of their claims? A stupid question I know, but George Lucas is a billionaire, right? I mean, what does the man want that he can’t buy? The sky is pretty much the limit at this point, right?

And for that matter, where are all the reports of the mad spending sprees that someone as greedy as Lucas would need to support his allegedly money-obsessed, no doubt decadent lifestyle? Shouldn’t he have a fleet of private jets at his disposal? A private island in the Pacific? Private parking garages full of vintage cars? Wild, drug-induced orgies at Skywalker Ranch, complete with legions of million-dollar-a-night escorts and dancing girls?

If memory serves, his only extravagant indulgence after the profits from A New Hope finally began filtering in was to go out and buy a Camaro. Excessive, I know. 

Unfortunately, reality is going to have to rear its ugly head again. But you know, this is The Star Wars Heresies, after all. Aside from losing a pretty penny in his divorce, most of the money Lucasfilm has earned has simply been poured back into movies. That’s how he was able to finance all the prequel films himself, that’s how he’s able to pretty much finance any movie he wants to make now, regardless of whether there’s an interested studio or not. His efforts to build up all the companies that make up Lucasfilm have been well-documented, not to mention creating the imaginative mecca that is Skywalker Ranch.

There’s also just the little fact of the amount of people involved in Star Wars who walked away millionaires. He shared countless profit points with the cast and crew, none of which he was obligated to do. And unless we all forget, when the negotiations for the merchandise and sequel rights came about back in the seventies, Lucas could very easily have renegotiated another contract asking for at least another hundred thousand dollars for writing and directing A New Hope. American Graffitti had already opened to great success, after all. But no, he opted for the merchandising rights, NOT to become a billionaire but rather to promote the film any way he could. That it left him absurdly rich was as much an accident as anything. FOX didn't blink when he asked for those rights, because they were considered utterly worthless.

And then there’s just the little thorn in the side of the fanboy argument, which is his philanthropic work. He’s even started an educational foundation which he is very passionate about sensing, quite correctly, the hopeless inadequacies of the standard, industrial-age school system.

Even long before 2010, Lucas also contributed considerably to various causes. And then in that year, he joined with other billionaires and donated half his wealth to charity. It was somewhere in the vicinity of over a billion and a half dollars. I’m sure it was a nice tax write-off, but precious few people can ever claim to have given so much to so many.

Yes, I'm sure George Lucas likes money. The same as you and me and everyone else. But to paint him as a devil and everyone else as saints when it comes to the topic is a bit much.

Then there’s the little matter of the man’s personal philosophy. If the fanboys would just pop in Bonus Disc 2 with the special features from the Blu-Ray set, and surf over to The Empire Strikes Back part, specifically Dagobah, they would find a featurette …. oh, wait. They didn’t buy the Blu-Ray set! They were too busy being self-congratulatory, self-styled rebels and organizing boycotts on Amazon because Ewoks blink now or some such nonsense.

Well, for those of us who have seen it, the bit in question is Lucas in the writer’s room during the prep for the Mortis episodes of The Clone Wars. Firsthand, he takes the time to describe his own personal philosophy of the Force. Allow me to paraphrase:

The core of the Force is the light side and the dark side. One is selfless
and the other is selfish. And you want to keep them in balance. What
happens when you go to the dark side is that it goes out of balance.
And then you get really selfish and you forget everybody ….
Because when you get selfish you get stuff or you want stuff.
And when you want stuff and you get stuff then you’re afraid someone
is going to take it away from you …. Once you become afraid that someone’s going to take it away from you or you’re going to
lose it, then you start to become angry. And that anger
leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering. Mostly on the part
of the person who’s selfish, because you spend all your
time afraid of losing everything you’ve got, instead of actually
living.  While joy, by giving to other people – you can’t think of
yourself and therefore there’s no pain. The pleasure factor of
greed and selfishness is a short-lived experience.

That these words can somehow be reconciled with the picture the haters and kooks try to paint of him as a money-mad lunatic, lurking in alleys with a loaded revolver, waiting for the next hapless consumer to pass so he can steal their wallet, is problematic at best.

Actually, while it wasn’t my intention, the above paragraph is a near perfect portrait of the current batch of haters on the internet parading themselves around as “fans.” They’re so afraid that they’re going to lose out on getting that original original trilogy on Blu-Ray that they get angry. And that anger leads to hate, and they go on the internet and make ridiculous claims about Lucas stealing their money. And this leads to suffering on the part of Lucas and his kids and the rest of fandom. They’re so afraid of somehow losing the original trilogy that they allegedly love so much that they can’t actually live and enjoy anything else.

As opposed to the people who have given so much back to fandom, rather than just being consumed with want they want and complaining about all the stuff that they don’t get. Or in the simple words of The Phantom Holiday:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lucas the Sell Out!

Or not. If anyone saw this bit on the Forcecast Facebook page, my apologies. It seems relevant to post here, where it can enjoy a permanent home.

If there’s one phrase that gets paraded around more than any other about the creator of Star Wars, the flannel-wearing, beard-sporting George Lucas, it’s that he’s a “sell out.” George Lucas equals sell out in many corners of the internet. A few years from now, if you look up the phrase “sell out” on wikipedia or somewhere, chances are a picture of the notorious GL will be there by way of simple explanation. The two are practically synonymous!

But as Alan Watts once so eloquently put it, sometimes the most creative bits of philosophy come from questioning the most accepted elements of common sense.

In that spirit, I wanted to add my thoughts on Lucas as the most selling outest person who has ever sold out in the history of seller outerdom. Simply put, the phrase “selling out” originated in the music industry, but fortunately for us and the internet, it has branched out to encompass about any artist who has compromised their creative integrity and vision to grab as many wads of cash as humanly possible and/or thoughtlessly cater to the whims and desires of their audience to win popularity and status.

After the most cursory of glances, it seems a little odd that Lucas would be thought of as a "sell out," and more so that the label is so universally accepted. The rest of this post will examine who or what Lucas is allegedly selling out too, not to mention the hows and the whys of why this is so commonly believed and unquestioned.

First off, George Lucas’ audience - call them “fans” if you must - have been on a relentless, decade-plus campaign in which they’ve complained, argued, protested, defamed, re-edited, boycotted, and personally insulted him. Are these really the people he’s sold out to? Surely not. If so, it’s perhaps the most ham-handed, ill-conceived, horrifically-executed “sell out” of all time.

Take the Special Editions. Lucas having Greedo shooting first in the cantina has elicited nothing but anger and loathing from all corners. In point of fact, Lucas is arguably the only person alive who thinks it was a good idea. Han Solo may not have stuck to his guns, but ironically Lucas certainly has. Very few would maintain the change, but GL refuses to compromise.

One also has to stop and wonder exactly how many campaigns there have been to release the original version of the original trilogy on Blu-Ray. But nope, it didn’t turn out that way. Not only did Lucas refuse to release the original version, not only did he stick his preferred Special Editions in there, but he even added more changes! Infuriating changes. Ewoks blink! Vader says noooo! Dogs and cats, living together … mass hysteria!

And make no mistake, he knew full well the howling rage and furious indignation it would cause. Just take a look at his “retirement” interview. He’s very aware of how “terrible” everyone thinks he is online. If he wasn’t before they started insulting him on his children’s Twitter accounts, he is now. Look at the situation on Amazon. Last time I bothered to check, the Star Wars Blu-Ray set that everyone has been anticipating for years is boasting over a thousand one star reviews! One star!

I’ve already made note of this in an early post, what with all the ludicrous, high-fiving, back-slapping congratulations that are going on in the forums and comments. Certainly more than one person there has accused Lucas of being a sell out. Not to get political, but this to me makes about as much sense as bothering to vote.

If Lucas is the ultimate sell out, willing to do anything to make another quick buck and build up his fame and ego - personal vision and creativity be damned - then why doesn’t he immediately retract all the Special Edition changes? Why not make extra special super care that he doesn’t contradict any Expanded Universe continuity, thus making sure no one has more excuses to get mad at him, thus Lucas Books will sell more novels and he’ll make more money? If all he cares about is rolling around in beds full of cash while laughing maniacally, why isn’t he just farming Star Wars out to any hack director and collecting the box office receipts? Why aren’t we on Episode XXXIII: The Search For Luke’s Grandson or some such?

If he’s such a sell out, with no creative energy, talent, or integrity, why didn’t he listen to all the endless complaints of ruined childhoods after the release of The Phantom Menace? Why didn’t he go onto the countless internet forums publically tearing him and everything to do with the film to shreds and take notes? He could have reshot and re-released the film, only this time Darth Maul could have decapitated Jar Jar Binks in the first thirty seconds, and then spun his lightsaber around and done backflips for the next two hours. He could have even called it “Episode I: I Was Wrong.” Legions of angry online fanboys would have been in utter, near orgasmic, ecstasy. It would have easily grossed five billion dollars domestic if the internet forums are anything to go on.

For that matter, why didn’t someone as lazy and untalented as Lucas simply take on and release one of the myriad fan edits of the film that cut out Jar Jar and midichlorians altogether? Episode I could have been Episode III, and then Episodes II and III could have been Vader stomping around the galaxy, breathing hard, and slaughtering Jedi. How badass would that have been? Because really, the only thing that matters when it comes to Star Wars is how badass it is, mouse droids in the original trilogy be damned.

Even more recently than that, "Lucas the Sell Out" should have set to release The Phantom Menace in 3-D, heard all the whining and complaining about it, and then laugh it off and release A New Hope, arguing that that had been the plan all along. Or better still, he could have released fan favorite The Empire Strikes Back, made a gazillion dollars, and had countless fanboys eating out of the palm of his hand and erecting statues of him in the town square.

In short, if George Lucas would just bend over, grab his ankles, and quietly take it like a man whenever the fanboys barked a command, there wouldn’t be any problem. If he would simply make his Star Wars movies their way, if he would promptly respond “How high?” when they asked him to jump, he would be the most loved celebrity on the internet.

The fact is, that maverick, independent filmmaker of the seventies and eighties that everyone claims to have idolized is actually alive and well. And arguably more maverick and independent then ever. For better or worse, he’s made his movies his way ever since 1977, with an almost careless or cavalier attitude to profit or public approval.

So yes, undeniably, the fanboys do hate George Lucas. But not for the exalted, artistic reasons they claim. In fact, it’s another reason altogether.

They don’t hate George Lucas because he's “sold out.”

They hate George Lucas because he refuses to.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

It's All Greek To Me

-Myths and Epics and Dramas, Oh My–

“If The Odyssey had enjoyed – or suffered – as much anticipatory
fluffing as Phantom Menace did, some ancient Greeks surely would
have muttered, ‘Homer’s lost it.’ And the poet would
defend himself, as Lucas does today.”
- Richard Corlis, TIME, 2002

     After winding my way through several interpretations and commentaries on the grand Greek duology, The Iliad and The Odyssey, it doesn’t take too much effort to find all the implications to Star Wars. At least, not for me. Then again, my mind pretty much automatically translates everything of this ilk into being about Star Wars, whether it is or not. Still, the comparisons are there and pretty interesting.
     This isn’t going to be a detailed look at the specific parallels between the stories, so much as a quick glance at various elements I’ve gleaned from my own studies. The first time I can consciously recall hearing any such comparisons were, no surprise, from our old friend Joseph Campbell. In The Power of Myth, Campbell remarked on a similarity between the quest of Telemachus, who’s looking for his long lost father, Odysseus, and Luke Skywalker, who is doing much the same in the original trilogy. According to Campbell, it’s about finding out what your source is and what your career is. What your adventure is.
     While flipping through World Mythology, a grand collection of tales the world over, Donna Rosenberg made some interesting comments about the nature of the twin Greek epics that inspired so much of Western culture. It is believed that the poet Homer probably created both The Iliad and The Odyssey, perhaps the first in his youth, and the second in his older years, though there’s obviously a lot of debate about this. What is really interesting to me is her descriptions of the two works:

The principal difference between the two epics is that The Odyssey
is primarily a superb adventure story, perhaps the greatest in literature,
whereas The Iliad is a serious, dramatic portrayal of human personality
and the conflicts that arise between a person’s own wishes and his or her
responsibility to the needs of the community.

Thus, the plot of The Odyssey has a narrower focus than that of
The Iliad. Instead of presenting the heroic deeds and psychological
conflicts of Greek and Trojan heroes, The Odyssey describes a long
and difficult journey of Odysseus, one of the heroes in The Iliad as
he returns from Troy and struggles for his control of his kingdom.

     Those two paragraphs really struck the fanboy in me when I first read them. She could just as easily have been talking about the prequel trilogy and the original one as opposed to the Greek epics. Actually, the main difference is that George Lucas, unlike Homer, wrote and directed the prequels in his older years and the sequels in his youth. Still, the comparisons are ripe.
     The original trilogy paints the tale of Luke Skywalker, who is striving to become a Jedi Knight and overthrow the evil Empire which has the galaxy enslaved. Perhaps first and foremost, like The Odyssey, it is a superb adventure story, arguably the greatest adventure story in the history of cinema. It also focuses on a narrower cast of heroes and, while the galactic civil war is still going on unlike the Trojan one, there is certainly a struggle for control of the kingdom, played out in large part between father and son. And true, Luke doesn’t have to outsmart a Cyclops, but he does have to take down a Rancor.
     The prequel trilogy is perhaps a more serious and dramatic portrayal of human personality, much like The Iliad. While centering around the windy plains of Troy, much of the conflict takes place between Agamemnon and Achilles. While the greatest Greek warrior - the Chosen One, if you will - Achilles’ honor has been taken from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. Incidentally, for those who found Anakin Skywalker whiny in the prequels, Achilles spends a significant amount of time not fighting alongside his men in the Trojan War, but rather pouting in his tent. Just a note.
     At any rate, the prequels also boast a profound conflict between a person’s own wishes and his responsibility to the community, a conflict that is found in spades in the Anakin and Padme relationship. It also lurks behind the entire Jedi Code.
     Donna Rosenberg also notes:

In addition, the moral issues in The Odyssey are clearer than they are
in The Iliad. Many characters in The Odyssey act more like heroes or
villains, whereas more of the characters in The Iliad have complex
personalities and display a combination of good and bad traits. In
keeping with Homer’s attitude toward good and evil in The Odyssey,
the heroes survive, the gods punish the villains by killing them, and
the story ends happily. In contrast, the best among the heroes in The
Iliad make mistakes and die, and the story has an unhappy ending.

     This certainly holds true when comparing the original trilogy to the prequel one. From the first scenes onward, a Sith Lord dressed all in black captures a princess dressed all in white, and there is little question in A New Hope who the good guys are and who the bad ones are. Even the mercenary Han Solo comes around in the end. Right up until the last act of The Empire Strikes Back, particularly with the revelation of Darth Vader’s fatherhood, the heroes are heroes and the villains are villains. In the end of Return of the Jedi, Death Stars are blown up, the Emperor gets the shaft, and it’s hard to get much happier than an Ewok party in the tree villages of Endor.
     The prequel trilogy, on the other hand, is often mired in ambiguity. Much like in The Iliad, the characters have a very complex set of traits. The Jedi practically initiate a war in front of legions of clone troopers and aboard the bridges of Star Destroyers, while the lead hero falls to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith. Characters even repeat dialogue at different points, such as Chancellor Palpatine and Mace Windu who each tell Anakin that respective enemies are “too dangerous to be kept alive.” The heroes make mistakes and the bad guys win the day. The prequel trilogy ends with Obi-Wan and Yoda exiled, Padme dead, Anakin as Darth Vader, and the Sith once more in control of the galaxy. Grim, indeed.
     Along these lines, I’ve also been enjoying the Modern Scholar series on CD. The first I chose was Monsters, Gods, and Heroes, which traces the development of the epic in Western civilization. With lectures by Professor Timothy Shutt, it began with The Iliad and The Odyssey, and then Virgil’s Aeneid, eventually moving on to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, some Edmund Spenser, and a few others that have developed outside the realm of verse, taking the form of novels.
     For my money, Star Wars is certainly a continuation of this trend. In point of fact, I would stand it up against about any of the others mentioned. It would acquit itself well. While Professor Shutt did cite Lord of the Rings and other fantasy works as bringing the epic back into the postmodern world, he did mention “the various Star Wars films” in the course booklet that came with the series as doing the same.
     He also hit on the very real hunger that still exists for these types of stories, regardless of whether human beings can accept them as being serious and true anymore. They may have to exist in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, because a post-Enlightenment Western world can’t accept them anywhere else, but one is certainly a continuation of the other.
     Nonetheless, Shutt did mention how engineering majors and such would no doubt write myth and epic off altogether as “A lot of silly stories that don’t mean anything.” No doubt they would feel the same way about Star Wars as well, not to mention people who dress up as stormtroopers and Jedi on a regular basis. In my opinion, this attitude has become a significant problem in society today.
     Sure, the liberal arts and humanities are at something of an impasse as they do not automatically lead to six figure incomes, yet without them society winds up creatively and intellectually crippled. A mythic wasteland. Still, Shutt feels the epic is on the rise, even with the predominance of irony and the abstract in the art world (Fair enough, he feels the abstract pretty much peaked with Jackson Pollock splattering paint on a canvas).
     Incidentally, I’ve also been listening to more of the Modern Scholar series, this time with Professor Peter Meineck on Greek Drama. Yes, more comparisons abound. I found it interesting that “theater” actually means “seeing place” and, while there was a profound marriage of the literary and the visual in Greek drama, it is nice to be reminded that film is first and foremost a visual event. One quite literally goes to the cinema to see, and the vistas and splendor of Star Wars is unparalleled in that regard.
     It’s funny listening to Meineck conjure up images of Athens in the fifth century B.C., particularly when Greeks are camping out in lines to get good seats. Granted, no one was dressed up as Darth Maul or Yoda, but it is highly reminiscent of the inevitable lines that creep around the cinema whenever a new Star Wars film debuts. Actually, in the days of Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, it surprised me that plays were performed one time, and one time only (Imagine a Star Wars film coming out and only getting to see it one lousy time! Now that would be a tragedy).
     The professor also waxed lyrical about the shared communal experience, which also strongly reminded me of what happens to an audience during a midnight premiere of a Star Wars film. It is a highly emotional experience and, much like in ancient Greece, perhaps even a borderline sacred one. Even going to the theater today, with its stadium seats, enormous screens, and all-encompassing stereo sound, brings a taste of this to the modern soul. Particularly when everything goes quiet and the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” form on the screen. And much like the Athenians, they didn’t go to the theater to see “kitchen sink drama,” but rather tales of gods and heroes, stories that dealt with social, political, and mythological themes.
     In short, your average fifth century Athenian would have felt right at home watching Star Wars at the local AMC, or more at home than you might think. And as far as Greek tragedy goes, I bet Revenge of the Sith or The Empire Strikes Back could certainly give the plays of Aeschylus a run for first prize ….

P.S. Yes, the rumors are true. The Star Wars Heresies is graduating to book form, hopefully by fall of 2013. Unfortunately, that also means my blogging time is seriously hijacked. Between that and a move, time has been in short supply. Hopefully I will be getting better at balancing it all. Stay tuned!