Friday, January 20, 2012

Camera Obscura: The Sad Demise of George Lucas

It's sad to witness the strange demise of filmmaker George Lucas, who no only held great promise, but exploded the world of cinema and cinema fans with his original "Star Wars" trilogy, and then exploded the world of visual and audio effects with his breakout creations of Industrial Light and Magic. But that is all in the past, and here in the present, Mr. Lucas appears oddly lost and angry and I'm left to wonder what happened to him.

Yes, yet another fanboy critique of you and your work. I'm really sorry. I know it isn't anything you want to hear.

His company and he himself financed and released today a big-budget tale of the incredibly heroic World War 2 pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen titled "Red Tails". And he's been very vocal about what he sees as Hollywood's failure to support big budget movies with all-black casts. Indeed, he drafted the creators of "Undercover Brother" and "The Boondocks" to write and direct this movie. But his own goal was to created a sort of patriotic African-American John Wayne hero movie when I don't know that anyone - regardless of their race - wanted one. Hey, you want a tough, he-man African-American genre movie hero? Watch "Shaft". And that was decades ago, and now, audiences are just expecting more.

Or better, if Lucas wants to energize Hollywood to support African-American directors and writers and actors, then give them the financing and the whiz-bang effects and tell them "Make the stories and movies that you want to make."

After reading this lengthy interview with the angry and seemingly disconnected Lucas in the NYTimes I was left with the impression that he has somehow been diluted into a weird sort of Howard Hughes person. He had too much success, too much money, too fast and too soon. Lucas' has really hokey ideas about movies (not necessarily a bad thing) and has nurtured an incredible amount of technical development of cinema - but hates anyone who might challenge his decisions to make "Star Wars" anything except what he wants it to be. Fights with a world of fans? Really?

Midi-chlorian machine
Here's my own personal fanboy rant against how Lucas unwisely changed the intentions of his "Star Wars" tale -- the original film (now called Part 4) was a hero's journey, a young man takes on adventure and ideas (empires even!) far beyond his grasp and changes the world as a Jedi Knight. But in "The Phantom Menace" (aka Part 1), we learn, hey, to be a Jedi, you have to have the right genetic code (something Lucas wrote of as a high Midi-chlorian count in the bloodstream) in order to be special. Heroism or wisdom is not achieved through effort and work, it's just about being born with the right heritage. ?????

He's about to release (again) the entire movie series now in 3-D, and from Part 1 through Part 6. But if you tell (or see) this story out of the original order, there is no mystery as to who heroic Luke Skywalker and villainous Darth Vader are. None. So what story are we watching now? Not the ones which forever changed movies and movie audiences around the world.

Let's put it this way and compare some basic movie-making concepts --

Also being released theatrically today is a movie called "Haywire" by the director Steve Soderbergh (who also did the camerwork and the editing), and he's been a critic-approved director and a blockbuster-movie-franchise creator too, for many years. But he also makes small-budget, tightly wound action and thriller movies too. "Haywire" is mostly a karate/kung-fu action yarn - a straight-up genre movie, expertly made. He's done this type of thing before with the excellent crime thrillers "Out of Sight" and "The Limey".

Compare that with "Red Tails" - it too has rousing action scenes, yes, expertly made. But "Red Tails" comes from real-world events and that history is pretty much discarded here. "Haywire" ain't history, did not cost a fortune to make, and is based in fantasy. And Soderbergh has also taken on huge historical projects too, like "Che: Parts One and Two", which don't skimp on history or action and is a truly notable achievement.

From here in my movie fanboy seat, I can easily pick the better filmmaker, and he's probably a happy fellow too. So it is not George Lucas.

I still like his early films too - "THX-138" and "American Graffiti" are great movies (which Lucas hates). But after 1980 ... it's all been downhill.

Here are a few more examples you can watch tonight on Turner Classic Movies - both sharp, witty, exciting crime thrillers, expertly made, and expertly written and performed by using well-made characters in settings both imaginary and real, which are both popcorn movie fun and still manage to speak to real-world ideas, like technology and individuality.

First, at 10 pm "The Anderson Tapes" by Sidney Lumet. Sean Connery and an excellent cast plot a massive heist at a luxury apartment complex in NYC. Fresh from prison, none of them know how much every move is being tracked by casual and police surveillance sources.

That's followed by the original version of "The Taking of Pelham, One Two Three", about crooks pretending to be terrorists as they hijack a subway car in Manhattan. Every performance here stands out, major and minor, they move and sound like real New Yorkers and real crooks. The recent remake was awful - this version is hugely entertaining.

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